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Under digital surveillance: how American schools spy on millions of kids

Fueled by fears of school shootings, the market has grown rapidly for technologies that monitor students through official school emails and chats

by Lois Beckett

Part 1

For Adam Jasinski, a technology director for a school district outside of St Louis, Missouri, monitoring student emails used to be a time-consuming job. Jasinski used to do keyword searches of the official school email accounts for the district’s 2,600 students, looking for words like “suicide” or “marijuana”. Then he would have to read through every message that included one of the words. The process would occasionally catch some concerning behavior, but “it was cumbersome”, Jasinski recalled.

Last year Jasinski heard about a new option: following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the technology company Bark was offering schools free, automated, 24-hour-a-day surveillance of what students were writing in their school emails, shared documents and chat messages, and sending alerts to school officials any time the monitoring technology flagged concerning phrases.

The automated alerts were a game-changer, said Jason Buck, the principal of the Missouri district’s middle school. One Friday evening last fall, Buck was watching television at home when Bark alerted him that one of his students had just written an email to another student talking about self-harm. The principal immediately called the first student’s mother: “Is the student with you?” he asked. “Are they safe?”

Before his school used Bark, the principal said, school officials would not know about cyberbullying or a student talking about hurting themselves unless one of their friends decided to tell an adult about it. Now, he said, “Bark has taken that piece out of it. The other student doesn’t have to feel like they’re betraying or tattling or anything like that.”

Although students at his school are aware they’re being monitored, they were surprised at first at how quickly school administrators could follow up on what they had typed, Buck said. “It’s not, ‘Hey, I sent this email two days ago,’ [it’s] ‘You just sent this email three minutes ago, let’s talk.’”

Bark and similar tech companies are now monitoring the emails and documents of millions of American students, across thousands of school districts, looking for signs of suicidal thoughts, bullying or plans for a school shooting.

The new school surveillance technology doesn’t turn off when the school day is over: anything students type in official school email accounts, chats or documents is monitored 24 hours a day, whether students are in their classrooms or their bedrooms.

Tech companies are also working with schools to monitor students’ web searches and internet usage, and, in some cases, to track what they are writing on public social media accounts.

Parents and students are still largely unaware of the scope and intensity of school surveillance, privacy experts say, even as the market for these technologies has grown rapidly, fueled by fears of school shootings, particularly in the wake of the Parkland shooting in February 2018, which left 17 people dead.

Digital surveillance is just one part of a booming, nearly $3bn-a-year school security industry in the United States, where Republican lawmakers have blocked any substantial gun control legislation for a quarter century.

“Schools feel massive pressure to demonstrate that they’re doing something to keep kids safe. This is something they can spend money on, roll out and tell parents, this is what we’re doing,” said Chad Marlow, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Unlike gun control, Marlow said, “Surveillance is politically palatable, and so they’re pursuing surveillance as a way you can demonstrate action, even though there’s no evidence that it will positively impact the problem.”

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