Online Schools Are Here to Stay, Even After the Pandemic

In a study by the RAND Corporation, “Remote Learning Is Here to Stay,” 58 out of 288 district administrators — roughly 20 percent — said their school system had already started an online school, was planning to start one or was considering doing so as a postpandemic offering.

“This is hardly a panacea or a silver bullet for public schooling,” said Heather Schwartz, a senior policy researcher at RAND who directed the study. But, she added, “there is a minority of parents, a minority of students and even a minority of teachers for whom virtual schooling is the preferred mode.

Yet a surge of online schools comes with risks. It could normalize remote learning approaches that have had poor results for many students, education researchers said. It could also further divide a fragile national education system, especially when many Asian, Black and Latino families have been wary of sending their children back to school this year.

“My fear is that it will lead to further fracturing and fragmentation,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Districts said they were simply responding to demand from parents and children who want to stick with remote learning — some because of student health issues, some because of concerns about bullying or discrimination in their school, and some who just prefer the convenience of learning at home.

Districts that fail to start online schools could lose students — along with government education funding — to virtual academies run by neighboring districts, companies or nonprofits, administrators said. To pay for the new online offerings, some districts said, they are using federal coronavirus relief funds or shifting resources from other programs.

Online schools began opening in the 1990s, some run by states or districts and others by private companies or nonprofit charter management organizations. But until recently, they played a niche role in many states.

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Vaccine Passports: What Are They, and Who Might Need One?

With Covid-19 vaccinations accelerating, attention is turning to tools for people to prove that they have been inoculated and potentially bypass the suffocating restrictions used to fight the pandemic.

Though the idea is meeting some resistance over privacy and equity concerns, several types of coronavirus vaccination records, sometimes called “vaccine passports,” already exist, in paper and digital form. Hundreds of airlines, governments and other organizations are experimenting with new, electronic versions, and the number grows daily, although so far their use has been very limited.

Portable vaccine records are an old idea: Travelers to many parts of the world, children enrolling in school and some health care workers have long had to supply them as proof that they have been vaccinated against diseases.

But vaccine passports use digital tools that take the concept to new levels of sophistication, and experts predict that electronic verification will soon become commonplace, particularly for international air travel, but also for admission to crowded spaces like theaters.

“yellow card,” used for decades by travelers to show inoculation against diseases like yellow fever. But those are on paper, filled out by hand and fairly vulnerable to forgery.

The tool might have to address several variables: It is unclear how long inoculation lasts, there can be bad batches and the emergence of new variants of the virus are likely to require new vaccines. So in the long run, an electronic record might need to show which specific vaccine a person received, from which batch and when.

More than a dozen competing versions are already being developed and promoted.

using CommonPass, developed by the Commons Project, a Swiss-based nonprofit, with support from the World Economic Forum. Lufthansa passengers flying into the United States can also use it.

The same month, Singapore Airlines became the first carrier to make limited use of Travel Pass for people flying between Singapore and London, and will put it into wide use in May.

Also in March, New York State became the first government in the United States to implement a system, the Excelsior Pass, developed with IBM, which some venues have used to prove vaccination. The governors of Florida and Texas have vowed to block any such system in their states, calling it government overreach and an invasion of privacy.

Vaccine Credential Initiative, to develop a broadly agreed-upon set of open standards, meaning that the software underlying a verification system is transparent and it can adapt easily to other systems, while safeguarding privacy. The W.H.O. has a similar initiative, the Smart Vaccination Certificate.

But several companies are creating closed, proprietary systems that they hope to sell to clients, and some apparently would have access to users’ information.

One concern is that a profusion of systems might not be compatible, defeating the purpose of making it easy to check someone’s status.

Another objection is that any requirement to prove vaccination status would discriminate against those who can’t get the shot or refuse to, and there is lingering uncertainty about how well inoculation prevents virus transmission.

For those reasons, the W.H.O. said this week that it does not support requiring proof of vaccination for travel — for now.

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Pinterest Is Said to Be in Talks to Acquire the Photo App VSCO

SAN FRANCISCO — Pinterest has held talks to buy VSCO, a photography app that spawned a teenage social media craze, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

The discussions are ongoing, said the people, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly. A deal price couldn’t be learned; Pinterest has a market capitalization of about $49 billion, while VSCO has raised $90 million in funding and was last valued at $550 million. An acquisition may not materialize, the people cautioned.

Representatives from Pinterest and VSCO (pronounced “vis-coe”) declined to comment on deal talks.

Julie Inouye, a spokeswoman for VSCO, said the company was focused on expanding its business. “We’re always meeting with different companies across the creative space at any given time and do not discuss rumors or speculation,” she said.

Pinterest and VSCO, which stands for Visual Supply Company, are part of a group of tech companies that are highly focused on digital images and visual editing and that rely less on social networking features. Pinterest, a digital pin board site that went public in 2019, lets its users discover and save images to inspire creative projects or to plan important aspects of their lives, including home renovations, weddings and meals.

an app for editing and sharing images and videos. In 2019, it became popular with a Generation Z group that came to be known as “VSCO girls,” who were known for wearing Crocs and carrying Hydro Flasks. The idea of VSCO girls went viral, inspiring social media imitation, mockery, memes and Halloween costumes.

For Pinterest, buying a once-buzzy start-up that was popular with younger audiences and that has expertise in photo- and video-editing technologies could bolster its core service, the people said.

Since Pinterest went public, its revenue has grown, though analysts have said they don’t expect Pinterest to become regularly profitable until 2022. It has also expanded internationally.

During the pandemic, the company experienced a surge of interest as people were locked down and turned to more digital activities. Pinterest added 100 million monthly active users last year and now has a total of 450 million monthly active users.

The San Francisco company also faced social unrest last year. In December, it agreed to pay $22.5 million to settle a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit from its former chief operating officer, one of the largest publicly announced individual settlements for gender discrimination. Two female employees of color who quit last year also publicly discussed their experiences with racist and sexist comments, pay inequities and retaliation at the company.

Founded in 2011, VSCO became known among younger users as a kind of anti-social network. The app does not have likes, comments or follower counts, so it appeared to put less pressure on users to build up a fan base. VSCO also eschews advertising, instead earning money by charging people for extra features. Of its 100 million registered users, more than two million are paying subscribers.

When VSCO girls became a cultural phenomenon in late 2019, investor interest in the start-up swelled. But the fad has since cooled off. When the pandemic hit, VSCO laid off 30 percent of its employees. In December, it acquired Trash, a mobile app for video editing, and said it planned to continue acquiring companies in 2021.

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If You Care About Privacy, It’s Time to Try a New Web Browser

Firefox Focus, DuckDuckGo and Brave are all similar, but with some important differences.

Firefox Focus, available only for mobile devices like iPhones and Android smartphones, is bare-bones. You punch in a web address and, when done browsing, hit the trash icon to erase the session. Quitting the app automatically purges the history. When you load a website, the browser relies on a database of trackers to determine which to block.

DuckDuckGo, also available only for mobile devices, is more like a traditional browser. That means you can bookmark your favorite sites and open multiple browser tabs.

When you use the search bar, the browser returns results from the DuckDuckGo search engine, which the company says is more focused on privacy because its ads do not track people’s online behavior. DuckDuckGo also prevents ad trackers from loading. When done browsing, you can hit the flame icon at the bottom to erase the session.

Brave is also more like a traditional web browser, with anti-tracking technology and features like bookmarks and tabs. It includes a private mode that must be turned on if you don’t want people scrutinizing your web history.

Brave is also so aggressive about blocking trackers that in the process, it almost always blocks ads entirely. The other private browsers blocked ads less frequently.

For most people, not seeing ads is a benefit. But for those who want to give back to a publisher whose ads are blocked, Brave hosts its own ad network that you can opt into. In exchange for viewing ads that do not track your behavior, you earn a cut of revenue in the form of a token. You can then choose to give tokens to websites that you like. (Only web publishers that have a partnership with Brave can receive tokens.)

I tested all three browsers on my iPhone, setting each as my default browser for a few days.

All have a button to see how many trackers they blocked when loading a website. To test that, I visited nypost.com, the website of The New York Post, which loaded 83 trackers without any tracking prevention. With DuckDuckGo, 15 of the nypost.com trackers were blocked. With Brave, it was 22. And Firefox Focus blocked 47.

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The Start-Up Enemies of Wall Street Are Booming

“The infrastructure has gone to a whole other level,” said CJ MacDonald, founder of Step, a debit card provider aimed at teenagers. Introduced in September, Step quickly reached one million customers, partly from endorsements from social media influencers like Charli D’Amelio.

In December, Step raised $50 million in funding. The company was not looking for more money, Mr. MacDonald said. But investors started calling as soon as the app joined the top-downloaded finance app list shortly after it was released. The money came together in a matter of weeks, he said.

Investors are even clamoring to buy into broken deals. Plaid, which had agreed to sell itself to Visa for $5.6 billion last year, saw the deal unravel in January after facing antitrust scrutiny. Now the fast-growing company is in talks with investors to raise funding at a valuation near $15 billion, said two people with knowledge of the company who spoke on the condition they not be identified because the discussions are confidential. The Information earlier reported Plaid’s funding talks.

Sheel Mohnot, an investor at Better Tomorrow Ventures, said Plaid’s sale price to Visa was viewed as “so amazing” at the time. But now, with multiple fintech companies approaching $100 billion valuations, it looks low.

Some caution that the excitement has gotten far ahead of reality.

Robert Le, an analyst at PitchBook, pointed to the valuation of Affirm, which has a market capitalization of $20 billion, or roughly 40 times its annual revenue. That’s significantly higher than the value that investors typically assign to blue-chip financial services companies. American Express, for example, trades at just three times its annual revenue.

“I think it’s a little irrational,” Mr. Le said. “Over the long haul, some of these companies will have to come down.”

Some of the start-ups have already hit growing pains. Chime, a banking start-up, had a series of outages in 2019, leaving millions of customers with no access to their money for hours. Some Coinbase customers have said they were locked out of their accounts or experienced thefts of their money. And Robinhood faces nearly 50 lawsuits and multiple regulatory investigations after it halted trading for some stocks during a frenzy in “meme” stocks in January.

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Lending Apps in India Shame Borrowers Who Can’t Pay Money Back

HYDERABAD, India — The harassing calls began soon after sunrise. Kiran Kumar remained in bed and, for hours, thought about how he was going to end his hostage of a life.

The cement salesman had initially borrowed about $40 from a lender through an online app to supplement his $200-a-month salary. But he couldn’t pay the mounting fees and interest, so he borrowed from others. By that morning, Mr. Kumar owed roughly $4,000.

Even worse, the lenders had the phone numbers of those closest to him, and were threatening to make his problems public.

“If I am labeled a fraud in front of everyone, my self-respect is gone, my honor is gone,” Mr. Kumar, 28, said in an interview. “What is left?”

devastated by the impact of the coronavirus on the Indian economy.

About 100 loan apps have been removed from the Google platform, according to the Indian government. A Google spokesperson said it reviewed hundreds of loan apps and removed those that violated its terms.

The investigations are raising alarms in India over the vulnerability of a population of 1.3 billion who are still getting accustomed to digital payments. Online transactions in India will reach more than $3 trillion by 2025, according to PwC, the consulting firm. Further fraud findings could spur the government, which has already limited the personal data that online companies can use, to take a tighter grip on the industry.

The apps also speak to the global nature of online fraud. Many of the companies use techniques that flourished in China two years ago before the authorities there shut them down, and that have since reappeared elsewhere.

The loan apps emerged at a desperate time. The government enacted a tough, two-month lockdown a year ago to contain the virus, plunging India into a deep recession. Millions were thrown out of work. Traditional forms of lending, like banks and microlenders, were temporarily closed.

With names like Money Now, First Cash, Super Cash and Cool Cash — according to police documents — the apps came and went on Google’s app store in India, some reappearing with a slight change of identity. Most were built with off-the-shelf software that made their creation as easy as starting a blog, said Srikanth Lakshmanan, one of the coordinators of Cashless Consumers, a collective of technology volunteers who have been studying the apps.

Aasra.info for more resources.

Cao Li contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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What Sky Bet, The Gambling App, Knows About You

LONDON — When Gregg finally stopped gambling in late 2018, he was in a dire financial position. He had lost nearly $15,000 during a nine-month betting binge, on top of two outstanding loans totaling more than $70,000 and a mortgage of more than $150,000 on his small home in Britain.

Now he is on a hunt to know whether his favorite gambling app, Sky Bet, knew about his problems and still tried to hook him.

Records show that Sky Bet had what amounted to a dossier of information about Gregg. The company, or one of the data providers it had hired to collect information about users, had access to banking records, mortgage details, location coordinates, and an intimate portrait of his habits wagering on slots and soccer matches.

After he stopped gambling, Sky Bet’s data-profiling software labeled him a customer to “win back.” He received emails like one promoting a chance to win more than $40,000 by playing slots, after marketing software flagged that he was likely to open them. A predictive model even estimated how much he would be worth if he started gambling again: about $1,500.

More than a dozen states, including New Jersey, Nevada and Virginia, now allow app-based gambling.

London lawyer behind the effort to obtain Gregg’s data. “When we start to look inside the vault, as we are here, then we see how vulnerabilities are laid out to the platforms.”

report published last year said 60 percent of the gambling industry’s profits came from the 5 percent of customers who were “problem gamblers,” or at risk of becoming so.

“We’re trying to get transparency,” Mr. Naik said. “It shouldn’t take this much work from lawyers to figure out what’s going on.”

Sky Bet was the most popular gambling app in Britain last year, downloaded roughly 140,000 times per month, according to the market research firm Apptopia. Once controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s British media company, Sky, it is now owned by Flutter Entertainment, which owns a number of casino apps and generated about $7.4 billion in revenue last year.

In Sky Bet’s privacy policy, which runs over 10,000 words, the company says it collects personal information including browsing history, spending, demographic data and behavioral information, such as the sports a person likes to bet on. The data, which can be shared across at least 12 gambling services owned by Flutter, is used for marketing and personalization, while financial information is collected for money-laundering and fraud protection, the policy says.

chat service for sports fans. “If you use that data in a way that you know, or should know, is harmful to your users, then that’s a serious problem.”

Mr. Naik, who previously helped uncover data misuse by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, was contacted last year by Gregg, who was seeking help getting copies of data from Sky Bet and companies it used to profile users.

The data that he and Mr. Naik obtained included a 34-page breakdown of his financial history from a company called CallCredit, which conducts fraud and identify checks for Sky Bet. It contained information about his bank accounts, debts and mortgage, with details down to monthly payments. In bold was a loan default in March 2019.

Another company used by Sky Bet, Iovation, provided a spreadsheet with nearly 19,000 fields of data, including identification numbers for devices that Gregg used to make deposits to his gambling account and network information about where they were made from.

totaled $7.3 billion, nearly double the next-largest market, Japan, according to Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, an industry research group. This week, four of the top five free sports apps on Apple’s App Store in Britain are gambling related. The companies own and sponsor soccer teams and dominate advertising during televised sporting events.

The country is at the center of the global debate about regulating the new generation of betting apps. The government has opened a review of gambling laws that will include the consideration of new rules for data use and affordability checks, according to the agency conducting the review.

Lawmakers should pass new regulations that allow companies to use data to spot problem gamblers but limit how it can be used for marketing and other sales objectives, said James Noyes, a senior fellow at the Social Market Foundation, a London think tank.

“They detect your pattern of play, your likes, dislikes, spending tendencies and exposure to risk,” Mr. Noyes said. “It’s taking information about you and turning it right back on you.”

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