To address inequities in technology access highlighted by the shift to remote learning since the onset of COVID-19, school districts across the United States have doubled the number of laptops and tablets provided to students, according to a study published by the Center for Democracy & Technology in September 2021. The problem, Nir Kshetri reported for The Conversation, is that “the vast majority of schools are also using those devices to keep tabs on what students are doing in their personal lives.”
Software programs—including Bark, Gnosis IQ, and Gaggle—monitor students’ technology use, including emails and private chats, with the promise of alerting school officials to hazards such as cyberbullying, drug use, or self-harm. As Jessa Crispin wrote in the Guardian, “It’s not clear whether students are going to benefit from this surveillance, or if it is merely going to reduce schools’ liability.”
The surveillance tools used by schools cause students “emotional and psychological harm” and “disproportionately penalize minority students,” Kshetri reported.
Surveillance makes students more cautious about what they say or search for online, potentially discouraging “vulnerable groups, such as students with mental health issues, from getting needed services,” he noted. Tech-based surveillance especially impacts Black and Hispanic students, who are more likely to depend on school-issued devices and also more likely to be flagged for use of offensive language, due to biases in artificial intelligence programs. Surveillance tools also affect sexual and gender minorities: Gaggle, a program used by many schools, has flagged “gay,” “lesbian,” and other LGBTQ terms, ostensibly to track online pornography and protect LGBTQ students from bullying.
The establishment press has not adequately covered the privacy concerns raised by widespread use of surveillance technologies embedded in school-issued devices. In April 2020, the Washington Post published an article titled “School Closures Prompt New Wave of Student Surveillance,” but this article focused specifically on software used by colleges and universities to monitor students taking exams. In September 2020, the New York Times published a “Here to Help” column, “How to Protect Your Family’s Privacy During Remote Learning,” but its advice focused on concerns such as the “proactive role” of teachers in “building a safe space for students” and parents discussing with their children “when and how often to use the camera.” The Wall Street Journal published “How to Detect Your Child’s Emotional Distress Before the School’s AI Does.” These articles make no mention of specific software programs used to monitor students or how they hinder student privacy and development.
In May 2022, the Federal Trade Commission issued a policy statement on its intent to increase enforcement of educational technology vendors’ responsibilities under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a development the Center for Democracy & Technology lauded as “an important step toward improving privacy for students.”
Nir Kshetri, “School Surveillance of Students via Laptops May Do More Harm than Good, The Conversation, November 9, 2021 (updated January 21, 2022).
Jessa Crispin, “US Schools Gave Kids Laptops During the Pandemic. Then They Spied on Them,” The Guardian, October 11, 2021.
Student Researchers: Abigail Ariagno, Eliza Kuppens, and Ava Mullin (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)