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The Surveillance Conundrum: How Do We Simultaneously Protect Students From Danger AND Protect Student Rights

August 21, 2018

Over the weekend Quartz published a thought provoking article by Simone Stolzoff titled “Schools are using AI to track what students write on their computers”. The article frames the fundamental conundrum schools face when it comes to monitoring online conduct by students as follows:

Under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), any US school that receives federal funding is required to have an internet-safety policy. As school-issued tablets and Chromebook laptops become more commonplace, schools must install technological guardrails to keep their students safe. For some, this simply means blocking inappropriate websites. Others, however, have turned to software companies like Gaggle, Securly, and GoGuardian to surface potentially worrisome communications to school administrators.

These Safety Management Platforms (SMPs) use natural-language processing to scan through the millions of words typed on school computers. If a word or phrase might indicate bullying or self-harm behavior, it gets surfaced for a team of humans to review.

In an age of mass school-shootings and increased student suicides, SMPs can play a vital role in preventing harm before it happens. Each of these companies has case studies where an intercepted message helped save lives. But the software also raises ethical concerns about the line between protecting students’ safety and protecting their privacy. 

“A good-faith effort to monitor students keeps raising the bar until you have a sort of surveillance state in the classroom,” Girard Kelly, the director of privacy review at Common Sense Media, a non-profit that promotes internet-safety education for children, told Quartz. “Not only are there metal detectors and cameras in the schools, but now their learning objectives and emails are being tracked too.”

The debate around SMPs sits at the intersection of two topics of national interest—protecting schools and protecting data. As more and more schools go one-to-one, the industry term for assigning every student a device of their own, the need to protect students’ digital lives is only going to increase. Over 50% of teachers say their schools are one-to-one, according to a 2017 survey from Freckle Education, meaning there’s a huge market to tap into.

And when there’s a “huge market to tap into”, there’s lots of money to be made and nothing sells a product like fear. And, as Ms. Stolzoff reports, parents’ fears will often compel them to trade off their children’s rights and that, in turn, could have a devastating effect on their freedom to think for themselves. Worse, in some instances parents and students are not even aware that every word a child types on their electronic device is being monitored. As she writes:

Though most school districts require parents to sign blanket consent agreements to use technology in the classroom, some districts believe they’ll get a more representative picture of behavior if students aren’t aware of the software, according to Patterson. In other words, some districts don’t let the kids know they’re being tracked. 

But some services go beyond monitoring students, and one, Gaggle, proudly advertised its ability to track teacher communications before it was criticized for dong so… but by then the notion was planted in the minds of administrators:

Gaggle has gone even further. Not only do SMPs let schools monitor students, but the same software can be used to surveil teachers, it suggests. “Think about the recent teacher work stoppage in West Virginia,” a recent blog post reads. “Could the story have been different if school leaders there requested search results for ‘health insurance’ or ‘strike’ months earlier? Occasional searches for ‘salary’ or ‘layoffs’ could stave off staff concerns that lead to adverse press for your school district.”

(The company has since taken the post down. In an email, Patterson told Quartz that it was not in line with Gaggle’s mission “to ensure the safety and well being of students and schools.”)

Avoiding bad press and preventing teacher strikes have little to do with keeping students safe, but the implied message from the post is clear: Gaggle’s clients are administrators, not the students or teachers. 

Ms. Stolzoff does an excellent job of providing all sides of the story, but clearly seems to be on the side of student privacy, a side I would be inclined to favor. She concludes her essay with this quote from a parent that seems to capture the conundrum all engaged and thoughtful parents face when dealing with the issue:

“I’m worried about how clearly my kid knows what he’s agreed to when receiving that district provided device,” Liz Kline, a California parent, told Quartz. “It’s fine now when he’s six, but what about when he’s in high school and wants to organize a walk out?”


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