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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 6 - Drawing the line

While parents are often “grateful” for the information that comes from an intervention, Buck, the Missouri principal, said, students can be “a little bit upset sometimes. They feel like there’s a little bit of that privacy issue. But over the course of time they see we’re really trying to help, especially when we’re talking about the issue of self-harm.

Some school surveillance companies defended their products as more sensitive to students’ privacy than their competitors – or the students’ own parents.

Some parents want technology that will give them an exact record of every single text, every single email,” Jordan, Bark’s chief parenting officer, said. But Bark does not offer that, she said: “We only alert parents and schools when there is a real issue that they need to know about.

For Gaggle, McCullough said, the bright line was offering monitoring of only students’ official school emails and school documents.

We shouldn’t be looking at their private email. We shouldn’t be looking at their private social media posts. But in the school, with school-issued tools, we should protect them,” McCullough said.

Securly, in contrast, offers a free app for parents in the districts that use its technology that allows them to see exactly what websites their children have visited, what Google searches they have made, and what videos they are watching on YouTube, Jolley, Securly’s safety director, said.

At the moment, the company has no privacy protections for LGBTQ students who might need to search for information without their parents knowing about it, although Jolley said that was a concern the company was actively discussing.

While school surveillance companies tout products informed by “machine learning”, and “artificial intelligence”, school officials say that the technology is still far from perfect, and that they have received plenty of false alerts, like getting red flags when students tell each other sarcastically to “kill yourself”, talk about the band Suicide Boys, or have to write a school assignment on the classic American novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

An investigation into school surveillance by Education Week examined nearly 3000 alerts that Gaggle sent to one school district in Michigan. Most of these were “minor violations,” including a dozen students who stored or sent files that contained the word “gay,” and one who used the word “bastard” in a school assignment about the Odyssey.

After he had received multiple alerts from the same group of middle school boys who were sending edgy memes to each other, sometimes as late as 3am, Buck, the Missouri principal, called the boys into the office and encouraged them to find another way to share their jokes – perhaps a group text message – that would not constantly alert their principal.

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