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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 4 - Values at stake

Some proponents of school monitoring say the technology is part of educating today’s students in how to be good “digital citizens”, and that monitoring in school helps train students for constant surveillance after they graduate.

Take an adult in the workforce. You can’t type anything you want in your work email: it’s being looked at,” Bill McCullough, a Gaggle spokesperson, said. “We’re preparing kids to become successful adults.

Experience with school monitoring is a “training ground” that might mean that students “won’t lose their job for sharing inappropriate content”, said Trimble-Oliver, the chief information officer for Cincinnati’s public school district, which uses Gaggle.

Students “need to know that organizations can and probably are monitoring their content”, she said.
Privacy experts called these arguments “concerning”, and note that there are legal limits to how companies can monitor employees’ work emails.

The idea that everything students are searching for or everything that they’re writing down is going to be monitored by their school can really inhibit growth and self-discovery,” Natasha Duarte, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said.

For black students, and students with disabilities, who already face a disproportionate amount of harsh disciplinary measures, the introduction of new kinds of surveillance may be especially harmful, privacy experts said.

Both machine-learning algorithms and human analysts are at risk of misunderstanding what students write – particularly if the human analysts are older, or from different cultural backgrounds than the students they are monitoring, experts said. If digital surveillance companies scanning students’ emails and chats misinterpret their jokes or sarcasm as real threats, that “could expose students to law enforcement in a way they have not been in the past”, said Elizabeth Laird, the senior fellow for student privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The consequences of involving law enforcement in responding to what students are typing on their school computers is a particular concern in a country where more than 40% of schools have police officers inside school buildings serving as dedicated “school resource officers”, Vance said.

In some cases, surveillance companies monitoring students may themselves directly contact local law enforcement officials to take action if they’re concerned a threat is serious, and if school officials have given them permission to do so. The data surveillance companies are collecting on students may also be shared with law enforcement.

Securly, one of the leading educational surveillance companies, makes it possible for the human analysts who evaluate potentially troubling student messages to look back at the history of an individual student’s internet browsing history and web searches, allowing them to connect the dots between what students are reading, writing, searching for, and, in some cases, posting on social media.

Securly will share information with law enforcement “if there’s a warrant or subpoena”, Mike Jolley, the company’s director of K-12 Safety, said. Data about individual students is deleted when the students graduate, or when schools request it, Jolley said.

In the United Kingdom, school surveillance technology has already been tested for use in counter-terrorism efforts. Impero, a British education software company, piloted its monitoring technology as a counter-terrorism tool, flagging children for using phrases like “Jihadi bride”, “War on Islam”, or “You only die once”, the Guardian reported in 2015.

The company billed this as a “de-radicalisation effort” that would help teachers and other officials identify “vulnerable children” or “children that may be at risk in the future”.

It’s certainly fair to ask to what extent we feel comfortable with technologies first developed for use in war being used against our children,” Marlow, the ACLU expert, said.

It’s not clear what kind of “chilling effect” the monitoring might have on students’ self-exploration, their group conversations and their academic freedom, Marlow, the ACLU privacy expert, said. If students know their schools are monitoring their computer usage, will LGBTQ students in conservative school districts feel comfortable researching their sexuality? What about young Trump supporters in liberal school districts who want to do some political research?

Schools don’t post on a bulletin board outside the principal’s office, ‘Here are the words we’re searching for,’” Marlow said. “It forces students to be careful. They might not write about things or talk about things that are not, in fact, being monitored.

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