When Big Brother Goes to School the Students are the Test Subjects

by Vins
Published: Updated:

The use of invasive surveillance technology is being adopted in a New York school district to purportedly increase safety for their students. With a complete disregard for student privacy, the district has implemented facial recognition technology to monitor their students as they travel through campus, giving alerts when students are somewhere they are not authorized to be. Mona Wang and Gennie Gebhart report for the Electronic Frontier Foundation how the utilization of this technology exploits students and causes higher levels of distress on campus, and is likely to become a national trend.

Facial recognition software is being sold to schools with the promise that it will increase their students’ safety, both on and off campus. Proponents proclaim that these systems are imperative in reducing drug abuse and violence, overseeing student mental health, and even going as far to claim that they have the ability to prevent school shootings– all without any real evidence in support. Further, the students in schools who have decided to adopt these measures are required to participate, foregoing parent permission.

Facial recognition in schools merely scratches the surface of the technology that schools are willing to install. They have been known to use cameras and microphones to observe behavior and listen to students’ conversations on campus, however “Stalker-ware” is the off-campus online surveillance that allows superintendents to monitor student’s social media accounts. These systems allow schools to tap into the dreaded “cloud” to comprehend mass data collection within their school and to predict student activity. This, however, makes students vulnerable to hackers who could be watching what they are reading, watching, or typing, including passwords, without their knowledge.

Surveillance technology corporations compromise student safety and disproportionately target minorities and women for capital. They feed off administrative security concerns by overselling the demand for this technology. High-level monitoring often leaves students feeling unsettled and undermined, and that they are not given any respect or privacy, while obliterating their safety in accessing sensitive resources that could be leaked, sold, or even used against the very people being surveilled. It eliminates respect for individual expectations of privacy for the sake of potentially protecting students.

Corporate media oft promote fear-mongering stories that schools will eventually be overrun with violence and destruction without extra levels of security. Such reporting reinforces the belief that such technology is required, a financial boon to the tech sector which is a major ad contributor to corporate media. However, the long-term risk of using such invasive technology may be far greater than any short-term positive outcomes, if any. Students are taught to be critical of totalitarian societies, but these schools are disguising the Big Brother dystopia that our society is rapidly becoming.

Source: Mona Wang and Gennie Gebhart, “Schools Are Pushing the Boundaries of Surveillance Technologies,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 26, 2020, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/02/schools-are-pushing-boundaries-surveillance-technologies.

Student Researcher: Haley Hatch (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)