US schools gave kids laptops during the pandemic, then spied on them.


When the pandemic started last year, countless forms of inequality were exposed – including the millions of American families who don’t have access to laptops or broadband internet. After some delays, schools across the country jumped into action and distributed technology to allow students to learn remotely. The catch? They ended up spying on students. “For their own good”, of course.

According to recent research by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), “86% of teachers reported that, during the pandemic, schools provided tablets, laptops, or Chromebooks to students at twice the rate (43%) prior to the pandemic, an illustration of schools’ attempts to close disparities in digital access.”

The problem is, a lot of those electronics were being used to monitor students, even combing through private chats, emails and documents all in the name of protecting them. More than 80% of surveyed teachers and 77% of surveyed high school students told the CDT that their schools use surveillance software on those devices, and the more reliant students are on those electronics, unable to afford supplementary phones or tablets, the more they are subjected to scrutiny.

“We knew that there were students out there having ideations around suicide, self-harm and those sorts of things,” a school administrator explained to the CDT researchers. “[W]e found this [student activity monitoring software]. We could also do a good job with students who might be thinking about bullying … [I]f I can save one student from committing suicide, I feel like that platform is well worth every dime that we paid for [it].”

Thousands of school districts across the United States have installed surveillance software on school-provided devices to monitor their students’ online interactions. If a student emails or chats with another student saying they’ve been thinking of hurting themselves or that there is trouble at home, an AI bot or a human moderator watching over the messages in real time can send an alert to a teacher or administrator, allowing the teacher to jump in within minutes and ask if everything is OK.

These programs, such as Bark, Gnosis IQ, Gaggle, and Lightspeed, can cost the schools tens of thousands of dollars to implement, and they can be set up to search for language and online behavior indicating the possibility of violent tendencies, suicidal ideation, drug use, pornography use, or eating disorders.

I can certainly understand why schools would jump on technology they think might prevent teen suicide, bullying, and the like. The pandemic has been hard on everyone, and increased isolation and uncertainty is particularly hard on kids and teenagers. Students are reporting an increase in self-harm incidents and aggressive impulses since the beginning of lockdowns, and shoving everyone back together for a new school year is going to require adjustments. The only problem is that we’ve tried this before, in a different form. Everyone’s proposed solution to the advent of school shootings was, “Well, let’s just watch these little deviants much more closely.” Metal detectors at the entrance to schools became the norm, police had a more visible presence, and security cameras went up in classrooms and hallways.

That was a big business; schools spent billions of dollars on security infrastructure that mostly proved to be ineffective. And the results were, well, you’ll never guess! Kids felt unsafe, Black students were followed and harassed most frequently, and punishments increased as educational outcomes worsened. And, while some schools have started questioning whether their contracts with the police create more harm than good, others are simply adding digital surveillance to their physical systems.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have private electronics not subject to surveillance, and will have less privacy when it comes to doing the perverted embarrassing things all teenagers do. And if students’ references to drug use or pornography or violent thoughts might be forwarded to law enforcement, it will be, as usual, the kids already subjected to a greater number of interactions with police and social workers and other forms of monitoring and punishment who will suffer the increased attention.

Although schools and parents are quick to voice concerns over privacy, it remains unclear whether the result of all of this monitoring is safety – and if so, safety for whom? Safer for students? Surveys suggest students are mostly aware they are being monitored but are not fully cognizant of the extent. Many of these programs boast that teachers have direct access to the screens of their students, even after school hours are over. Teachers and administrators can hijack control of the computers remotely, closing problematic tabs and overriding their keyboards. Does that make kids feel safe?

Then there is the tricky question of the promise of “intervention”. The goal of the surveillance, according to the software companies, is to allow for a problem to be spotted and intervened with early on. That intervention can lead to the presence of police and social workers, each with their own difficult histories when it comes to involvement in private homes. And information about the child’s attempts to access outside help might be forwarded to their possible abuser: their parents. The Rape Abuse Incest National Network (Rainn) reported that during the pandemic more than half of their callers seeking assistance and counsel were minors, who were more likely to be trapped in their homes with abusive family members under stressful circumstances.

The software companies’ other big promise about monitoring children for problems is that mental health professionals can be alerted and services provided. But again, the outcomes for mental healthcare with children varies wildly. Children with Medicaid coverage are more likely to be prescribed anti-psychotics and other debilitating medication than get access to talk therapy.

It’s not clear whether students are going to benefit from this surveillance, or if it is merely going to reduce schools’ liability when an act of violence or self-harm takes place. If teens are in need of help, it seems obvious that the best way to protect them is to ensure they have trusted adults in their lives they can turn to. A snooping AI is no substitute for that.

Teens deserve privacy for the same reasons the rest of us do: to not have our rights trampled on, feel paranoid and be disciplined for minor transgressions. Besides, teens need their privacy to create confusing memes and frantic new TikTok dances. It’s their job to freak out adults; we need to give them the space to do it.

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