Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, public schools have increased their reliance on technology, having nearly doubled the number of school-issued tablet and laptop devices used by students, according to Nir Kshetri in an article published by The Conversation in November 2021. The increase in school-issued devices puts students at risk of artificial intelligence-based surveillance as educators seek to keep tabs on students’ online behavior. Vendors claim these tools protect students from harmful online activity, but privacy advocates claim there is more damage than good done.
Student surveillance by school-issued tech devices is “taking place – at taxpayer expense – in cities and school communities throughout the United States,” Kshetri reported. Eighty percent of teachers and 77 percent of high school students “reported that their schools had installed artificial intelligence-based surveillance software on these devices to monitor students’ online activities and what is stored in the computer,” he noted.
When students are aware of being monitored, they will be less likely to express themselves openly, and the developmental skills and mindset that encourages students to exercise their rights are diminished. Deterring students’ free expression can lead to emotional or psychological harm for students and the criminalizing of mental health problems, with minority students especially impacted. For example, Kshetri cited a 2019 study showing that the most prevalent AI models are fifty percent more likely “to flag tweets written by African Americans as ‘offensive’ that those written by others.”
In October 2021, LGBTQ Nation reported how officials in a Minneapolis school district paid more than $355,000 to Gaggle, a leading student surveillance company, for its services as schools made the transition to online learning during the pandemic. AI tools such as those provided by Gaggle often flag LGBTQ terms, including “gay” and “lesbian,” as pornography, though Gaggle says it monitors such language to prevent cyberbullying.
Kshetri explains how artificial intelligence monitoring systems lack the ability to understand context, and this results in these systems flagging false positives instead of real problems. Students who are using surveilled technology may be forced into uncomfortable situations regarding their sexuality if they are flagged. In terms of race, US schools already disproportionately discipline minority students. In fact, as Kshetri reported, Black students’ chances of being suspended are “more than three times higher than that of their white peers.” Black and Hispanic students are also more likely to rely on school-issued computers than white students. These facts matter because when content is flagged on a student’s device, it is reported to school officials who take disciplinary action based on the case. With the sudden rise of surveillance programs during COVID paired with the fact that Black and Hispanic students are using these technologies more, these students are more likely to be monitored, targeted, and affected.
Privacy issues are recurring as technology advances and the media infiltrates every aspect of life. Teaching students to incorporate technology with their education creates opportunities to get acquainted with these technologies, but can be more harmful than beneficial. “Schools would do well to look more closely at the harm being caused by their surveillance of students and to question whether they actually make students more safe – or less,” Kshetri concludes. Although there is ample coverage on technological surveillance and related software, these stories often cover more corporate matters. An overview of coverage regarding the monitoring of students’ technology use reveals that neither privacy impacts on students nor more profound issues of unequal treatment of racial minorities are not well-covered by establishment news outlets.
Nir Kshetri, “School Surveillance of Students via Laptops May Do More Harm than Good, The Conversation, November 9, 2021 (updated January 22, 2022).
“Minneapolis Schools Are Spying on Queer Students & Outing Them to Teachers and Parents,” LGBTQ Nation, October 16, 2021.
Student Researchers: Abigail Ariagno, Eliza Kuppens, and Ava Mullin (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)