UPDATE: Given what I learned about the ISTE18 ‘smart badge’ detailed in Hacking the ISTE18 Smart Badge and Hacking the ISTE18 Smart Badge, Part II, I’d have to amend the recommendations below and emphasize the value of Faraday bags. Faraday bags block radio transmissions, including WiFi, cell service, and Bluetooth (though your mileage may vary depending on the brand and the technology). My EDEC bag completely blocked my ‘smart badge’ transmitter, giving me some additional piece of mind as I kept it on my person.
So, you’re heading to Chicago to attend ISTE 2018 – the biggest K-12 edtech confab of the year (“the epicenter of edtech”) – you say? One week out, like me, I’m sure many of you are wondering if you have enough time left to prepare, what to plan to see and do, what the weather is going to be like, and even what to pack.
For those even remotely concerned about issues of privacy and security, ISTE 2018, however, is likely to be a challenging scene. While risks are present in attending any large-scale technology-oriented event, with this year’s roll-out of ‘smart badges’ the risks have magnified.
What’s a ‘smart badge’? While a few different technologies exist, ISTE has chosen to partner with EventBit (which is a product owned and operated by Experient). According to a 2015 article, EventBit itself is powered via Bluetooth surveillance technology developed by TurnoutNow.
Whether you’ll be joining me in opting out of the smart badge and event-specific mobile app (have you seen the permissions it requires?) or not, here are my suggestions for the must-have technology that will make your ISTE conference a little bit more private and safe:
First – and most important – you need a reputable VPN service running on all of the devices you are bringing. You’ll be connecting to untrusted WiFi networks, whether provided by ISTE, a vendor, your hotel, or Starbucks. There are lots of places to go for VPN recommendations (and choosing the right VPN can be complicated), I’ve either used or know people who use: Freedome (drop dead simple to use), Mullvad (review), Private Internet Access, or ProtonVPN (which offers a limited free tier). For those more technically-oriented, you can even spin up your own VPN via Algo or Streisand. While using a VPN is not foolproof and its not a silver bullet (don’t check your bank balance on the exhibit hall floor!), don’t leave home for ISTE without one installed and tested on all your devices.
Second, install privacy screens/filters on your devices. ISTE gets really crowded and a good privacy screen will prevent shoulder surfers from reading your IMs and email. Really, is it any of their business? These are widely available for sale online and in stores, but be sure to double-check the sizing and mounting options to ensure proper fit with your specific phone or laptop/tablet models.
Third, ensure that you don’t run out of juice: bring an extra charger, an external battery, and a USB data blocker to take advantage of public (and other untrusted) charging stations. Your phone is your lifeline: at ISTE, you’ll use it to stay in touch with friends and colleagues, look up directions for public transit, and even hail a cab or ride-sharing service (if you must) to get yourself back to your hotel late at night. Even if you are judicious with your use of WiFi, the sheer amount of passive wireless devices nearby are going to drain your battery something fierce. I’ve had good luck with Anker external batteries myself. If you think you’ll avail yourself of the free charging stations (or other untrusted chargers) offered by ISTE, vendors, or even at the airport, don’t take a chance and use a USB data blocker. Why? Juice-jacking (the charging port for your phone is also a data port). My favorite is this guy, available for under $10 online.
Fourth, don’t feel obligated to give out your real email or phone number. ISTE is all about the networking, but that doesn’t mean that you should be cavalier about revealing your actual email or cell phone number to strangers – even if it is required by a vendor to get into that great reception with your friends. And, while a conference of educators is generally a pretty nice and safe group, the conference has had its own history of stalkers and #MeToo moments. Your real email and cell number are gateways to a world of information about you. Think twice about providing it if you don’t have to. Thankfully, there are a number of apps like Blur and Sudo that simplify the process of generating and managing masked communications. With Sudo (iOS only), e.g., you can generate ISTE-specific credentials: a linked VoIP phone number (which accepts SMS) and email. While you can receive and send calls, texts, and emails to and from that pseudonymonous persona, it allows you to protect your primary number and email. Meet someone who later turns out to be a little too aggressive with their follow-up, block them (or delete the persona) and rest assured that you’ve not given them the digital keys to your real contact information. Sudo has been a big hit in my family.
Fifth, use common sense: your ‘wetware‘ is and remains the best defense of your privacy and security. Not currently using your location services, WiFi, or Bluetooth, turn them off. Better yet, drop your phone in a Faraday cage (or an empty potato chip bag) when you don’t need it. Outside the conference, take off your name badge. Don’t leave your devices unlocked and unattended. Don’t plug in random USB devices to your laptop. Don’t tag others on social media without their consent. Consider scrubbing the metadata from any photos you do post (Metapho works great on iOS). Setup and use 2FA on your accounts. Think twice when taking quizzes or answering questions from strangers on topics often used for online account security (pet’s name, mother’s maiden name, birthday, high school name, etc.). And, for the love of everything good and holy, don’t share your passwords. Bottom line: no technology in the world is going to protect you from yourself.
Whether its your first ISTE or your tenth, the digital landscape for personal privacy and security has shifted. Rockwell was prescient.
Follow these tips and you’ll dramatically reduce the chance of an unpleasant (or worse) incident. Enjoy the conference – and perhaps I’ll see you there!
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