Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Beware passport process post-guardianship

We’re renewing #1’s passport. Should be routine, but he is now in guardianship.

The post-guardianship passport process is currently undocumented. Our local passport office didn’t know the process. We’re now told we need not only the letter of guardianship but also the court order. All certified. The letters we’ve received on this have been misleading or incomplete.

It is an amazing mess going on for 2-3 months now. Our next stop will be to contact the office of our local Senator.

Be warned.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Universal data access for all Americans - what would it look like?

The NYT has another “digital divide” article, this time using Detroit. I think they might be doing a series on this topic.

The problem of net access isn’t unique to Detroit, it applies to every low income American, which includes pretty much every special needs adult. A smartphone (net phone?) isn’t an option, it’s a necessity for modern life [1]. That’s one the reasons I’m writing my book on smartphones for special needs teens and adults.

It’s not hard to give everyone a smartphone. We’ll be drowning in cheap Android devices soon. The problem is data access. Home WiFi, which is notoriously unreliable and complex, costs at least $35/month in most markets. Home WiFi is too complex for most people to maintain anyway. Cellular data costs about the same per month, but it’s tricky to meter and it’s per-person, not per-family. For a family of five we’re looking at $175 a month — too much for a low income family.

So we need some universal mobile data access that everyone gets. Something around 1GB a month. That’s enough to support essential interactions, but not enough for streaming video. 

I’m thinking we’ll either end up with something that’s funded by advertising (Facebook, Google) [2] or a public mandate. It might be a good idea to do both. Either way it will need to incorporate some kind of intelligent data use and filtering.

Whatever happens supporters of special needs adults should be engaged.

[1] Many government programs still have ancient web sites that don’t work well on a smartphone browser. The good news is that hackers are tearing those web sites apart, so they’ll need to be upgraded. In time we may need to bring ADA suits against government web sites that are not smartphone accessible.

[2] Low income advertising, best seen on daytime TV, is often predatory. That is, it’s advertising for services and products that are largely harmful scams. That will be a problem.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

MMGuardian - Review of an iPhone parental control and usage monitoring service

Yesterday I wrote about using MMGuardian with an Android device. Today I’m continuing research for my book project and my upcoming local (St Paul, MN) presentation on May 25th by reviewing MMGuardian on an iPhone.

Google and Apple have taken very different approaches to remote restrictions on mobile devices. Google has almost no built in restriction capabilities, but third party products like MMGuardian or Screen Time can dig deep into the operating system. They can monitor and disable SMS or phone services and they can lock the phone on a schedule. I haven’t used MMGuardian enough to know if this affects battery life or Android stability; that probably depends on how much support Google has built into Android.

For a parent, or a Guide working with an adult or teen with a cognitive disability, the iPhone restrictions are a big improvement on what Android provides. On the other hand, if you pay the $35-$60 a year for a 3rd party service, Android pulls ahead.

So how does an iPhone plus a third party service compare?

The short answer is that Android plus a third party service is better than an iPhone plus a third party service. At least if the service is MMGuardian, but as I’ll explain below I think it’s the same for all vendors. Compare this iPhone screenshot on the control portal (family.mmguardian.com) to the one I did for Android yesterday:


MM Guardian


MMGuardian Android

MMGuardian provides identical web filtering options for both platforms, but on Android phones MMGuardian provides fine grained control of app behavior. Individual apps can be turned on or off including apps that access media. For iPhones the only option is to disable access to video (movie and TV but not music video) and any apps purchased from the App Store [1]. Apple’s native apps, including Music, are not affected; a different control allows remote disabling of Safari, FaceTime and the camera. 

I’m sure MMGuardian’s iPhone limitations are actually Apple’s limitations. I’ll go over that in a technical appendix, but I did find one problem that belongs to MMGuardian:

MMGuardian Disable Issue

Both of these drop downs have the same options. So what do you do if you want to undo a Disable action? When I clicked Disable a 2nd time I got an error message saying the phone could not be reached. That’s a bug of some kind.

When I clicked Enable for 30 minutes everything returned — but what happens when the 30 minutes expire? Does it return to disabled? (It stays enabled — this is just a poorly structured UI. The options shown in this screen should change based on the Time Limits screen.)

MMGuardian for iPhone costs $20/year and there’s no family plan. MMGuardian for Android costs $35/year but there’s a $70/year family plan. I think MMGuardian (or something like it) is a necessity for an Explorer’s Android, but for an iPhone Explorer it’s not as simple. Most of what MMGuardian does, except for the web filtering, can be managed through the iPhone’s native restrictions.

Even so, I would have said MMGuardian is worth it for many Explorers — but I give the vendor two demerits for failing to document the uninstall procedure! This is particularly odd because it is well documented for Android devices.

Perhaps it is not documented because, unlike Android phones, there’s nothing to stop the restricted user from doing the uninstall themselves. In Settings:General Scroll down to find a Profile or Managed phone setting. Tap on it until you get the remove icon, then remove the profile. Now delete the MMGuardian app. Deleting the Profile will cause MMGuardian to send a notice to the Guide’s email address.

Once you’ve done this (but not before), you can go to family.mmguardian.com Settings and Delete the number from the MMGuardian account.

I get that MMGuardian doesn’t want to admit that device management can be so easily circumvented, but hiding the documentation is doing them no favors. It’s not something they can fix by the way, Apple has historically required ‘the consent of the governed’ for Mobile Device Management (they are changing that for schools, where, shockingly, the governed are rather rebellious).

In practice, for the Guide/Explorer relationship, “consent of the governed” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even in the parent/child setting, the removal of this kind of protection can lead to a productive conversation on the relative merits of a $50 flip phone.

Beyond the missing uninstall documentation it’s frustrating to be unable to block access only to iTunes movies and TV shows (blame Apple!), but it’s very helpful to be able to manage restrictions without physical control of the iPhone. The web filtering and reporting options, which (as with Android) require use of the MMGuardian browser, are a big improvement on Apple’s built-in controls. What we really need, of course, is for Apple to provider more options for MMGuardian and others to use.

The Technical Addendum

I’m going to get more technical here than I usually do in a Best You Can Be post. I mentioned that Apple is responsible for the gap between what MMGuardian can do on an iPhone vs. an Android phone, here I’ll explain why that is.

Apple and Google took very different approaches to phone design. Apple’s focused on security, privacy, reliability, usability and control, including directing phone revenues and services through Apple.  Google has focused on maximizing advertising revenue and extracting behavior data while minimizing overhead.

These different approaches have produced quite different devices. Apple’s approach means there’s effectively no malware on Apple iPhones, but developers can only do what Apple allows. Internal security is strong and developer violations are punished. Google’s approach means Android malware is now common, but developers have a lot of freedom for good as well as evil.

In the case of remote restriction what Apple allows is determined not by the needs of Guides and parents, but by the needs of corporations and, to a lesser extent, schools. The smartphone industry, including Apple, calls this set of capabilities “Mobile Device Management” or MDM. To a large extend Apple’s Mobile Device Management options for remote management use the same software infrastructure as the iPhone Restriction settings.

Apple provides Mobile Device Management through an application called Profile Manager that runs on their low OS X server software or through Configuration Profiles managed by Apple Configurator. Other vendors do similar things (and usually manage Android phones too), including JAMF Software’s Casper Suite, Cisco’s Meraki Systems Manager, and Mobile Iron’s Enterprise Mobility Management.

MMGuardian is providing a simplified from of MDM for Guides and Parents, and they’re adding in some custom built web filtering (which also works on Android). Unfortunately, like everyone else in this iPhone space, they’re limited to what Apple supports. Apple, so far, has been mostly supporting what corporations are asking for, not what we might want.

- fn -

[1] After writing this I learned that one can disable TV, Movies or Apps separately in manual restrictions. I thought one could only set age limits. I would like MMGuardian to provide separate controls, not an all or none setting.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

MMGuardian - review of an Android parental control and usage monitoring application

One of the last pieces of my book project, and a part of my upcoming local presentation on May 25th, is a discussion of smartphone restrictions and controls. 

I’m familiar with iPhone on-device restrictions, but Google didn’t build anything like that into Android for phones. Android users need to find a 3rd party solution.

Finding that solution isn’t easy. This isn’t the 1990s; most of the journalists that used to write about these things are out of business. I used geek-power to narrow my options to two products - Screen Time and MMGuardian. This post has my initial impression of MMGuardian, I’ll do another one on their iPhone product then I’ll try Screen Time for Android.

MMGuardian is easy to setup. You start by installing their app on the target Android phone (typically an Explorer or teen’s phone); you can find it on Google’s Play Store or from the MMGuardian web site. The app is called “MMGuardian Parental Control”, not to be confused with a different app that can be installed on a Guide’s phone for remote management. 

There’s a free two week trial, and for once you don’t start by entering a credit card. To enroll you launch MMGuardian Parental Control and complete a short form. After initial launch a second app will be installed called MMG Browser. That’s what an Explorer will use in place of Chrome; MMG Browser.app works with MM Guardian’s Web Filter service. (I assume MMG Browser is a wrapper over Chromium, Google’s web browser platform.)

I used the online web interface to do remote management of my Android test phone. Go to family.mmguardian.com and enter the credentials you setup earlier using MMGuardian Parental Control.app. The “user name” is your email address. 

There’s a good range of controls …

MM Guardian

In my early testing the commands send from MM Guardian’s acted within a few seconds, only the very first message failed.

App Management is quite different from iOS. iPhone apps can only be installed from Apple’s store, so it’s easy to disable installation. Android apps can be installed from any source, there doesn’t seem to be a simple way for developers to block all installations. Instead MMGuardian creates a list of apps that are allowed or blocked based on what is on the Explorer’s phone; new apps are blocked until review.

MM Guardian is looking pretty good so far. It’s $35 a year for a single phone, or $70 a year for up to five Android phones.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

How might Individual Retirement Account savings impact future disability related income support?

Unexpectedly, #1 is working 20hrs a week in an unsupported employment situation. Not enough to live on, but it makes qualifying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as disabled more difficult. Not to mention health insurance. Or financial planning beyond my grave, such as supplemental needs trusts and 529 Able plans.

Life with a cognitive disability is much trickier than it was just a few years ago.

So now he’s paying social security taxes and he could put money in a personal IRA. But how would that impact any future SSI payments? The maximal bank balance on SSI is $2000, but does that include IRA assets?

The best explanation I found online is from the SSA, I think this is the key line: “…anything else you own which could be changed to cash and used for food or shelter …”. Since disability allows early withdrawals from an IRA any savings therein would not be sheltered.

So he probably shouldn’t start an IRA. Looking at the list of things that don’t count as material assets the main exclusions are either a vehicle (he doesn’t drive) or a home that one lives in (talk about a benefit that goes to the relatively wealthy) …