Kids Are Back in Classrooms and Laptops Are Still Spying on Them

That’s what High school teachers see when they open GoGuardian, a popular software application used to monitor student activity: The interface is familiar, like the gallery view of a large Zoom call. But instead of seeing teenage faces in each frame, the teacher sees thumbnail images showing each student’s laptop screens. They watch as students’ cursors pass through the lines of a sonnet or the word “chlorofluorocarbon” appears, carefully typed in the search bar. If a student is seduced by a distraction (an online game, a stunt video), the teacher can see it too and can remind them to stay on task via a private message sent through GoGuardian. If that student has gone off task too many times, the teacher can take the device’s remote control and remove the tab.

Student tracking software has come under renewed scrutiny throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. As students in the US were forced to continue their studies virtually, many brought home school-issued devices. These machines housed software that allowed teachers to view and monitor students’ screens, use AI to scan text from student emails and cloud-based documents, and, in severe cases, send alerts of potential violent threats or damage to mental health for educators. and local law enforcement after school hours.

Now that most American students are finally returning to school in person, the surveillance software that proliferated during the pandemic will remain on their school devices, where it will continue to watch them. According to a report released today by the Center for Democracy and Technology, 89 percent of teachers said their schools will continue to use student tracking software, up 5 percentage points from last year. At the same time, the overthrow of Roe v. Wade has raised new concerns about digital surveillance in states that have made abortion care illegal. Proposals targeting LGBTQ youth, such as the Texas governor’s calls to investigate families of children seeking gender-based care, raise additional concerns about how data collected through school-based devices could be weaponized in September.

The CDT report also reveals how monitoring software can bridge the gap between classrooms and prison systems. Forty-four percent of teachers reported that at least one student at their school has been contacted by law enforcement as a result of behaviors flagged by the monitoring software. And 37 percent of teachers who say their school uses after-hours activity monitoring report that those alerts go to “a public safety-focused third party” (eg, the department of local police, immigration enforcement). “Schools have institutionalized and routinized law enforcement access to student information,” says Elizabeth Laird, director of civic technology equity at CDT.

US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey recently expressed concern about the software’s facilitation of contact with law enforcement, suggesting the products could also be used to criminalize students seeking reproductive health resources in school devices The senators have sought answers from four major tracking companies: GoGuardian, Gaggle, Securly and Bark for Schools, which together reach thousands of school districts and millions of American students.

Widespread concerns about teen mental health and school violence provide a grim backdrop to the back-to-school season. After the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Congress passed a law directing $300 million to schools to strengthen security infrastructure. Monitoring companies speak to educators’ fears, often touting their products’ ability to zero in on potential student attackers. Securly’s website offers educators “an AI-powered view of student activity for email, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive files.” It invites them to “approach student safety from all angles, on all platforms, and identify students who may be at risk of harming themselves or others.”

Check me out after class

Before Roe The decision brought more attention to the risks of digital surveillance, with lawmakers and privacy advocates already concerned about student-tracking software. In March 2022, an investigation led by Senators Warren and Markey found that the four aforementioned companies, which sell digital student tracking services to K-12 schools, raised “significant privacy and fairness issues.” The research noted that low-income students (who tend to be disproportionately black and Hispanic) rely more on school devices and are exposed to more surveillance than affluent students; it also found that schools and businesses were often under no obligation to disclose the use and extent of their tracking to students and parents. In some cases, districts may choose to have a company send alerts directly to law enforcement instead of a school contact.

Students are often unaware that their AI room monitors are imperfect and can be misused. An investigation by The 74 Million found that Gaggle sent warning emails to students for harmless content, such as profanity in a fiction submission to the school’s literary magazine. A high school newspaper reported that the district used monitoring software to reveal a student’s sexuality and report the student to his parents. (Today’s CDT report revealed that 13 percent of students knew someone who had been expelled as a result of student tracking software.) The editorial board of a Texas student newspaper argued that the Your school’s use of the software could prevent students from seeking mental health support.

Also disturbing are the accounts of software monitoring that infringes on students’ extracurricular lives. An associate principal I spoke with for this story says his district would receive “Questionable Content” email alerts from Gaggle about pornographic photos and profanity in student text messages. But students weren’t texting on their Chromebooks at school. When administrators investigated, they learned that while the teenagers were at home, they would charge their phones by connecting them to their laptops using USB cables. The teens then proceeded to have what they believed were private text conversations, in some cases exchanging nude photos with significant others, all of which could be detected by the Gaggle software running on the Chromebook. The school is now advising students not to connect their personal devices to school laptops.

Such widespread surveillance has always been puzzling to privacy advocates, but the criminalization of reproductive health care in some states makes these issues more acute. It’s not hard to imagine a student living in a state where terminating a pregnancy is illegal using a search engine to find out-of-state abortion clinics or chatting online with a friend about an unplanned pregnancy. From there, teachers and administrators could be responsible for notifying the student’s parents or local law enforcement.

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