In-person teaching has resumed in the US – but electronic snooping hasn’t stopped | Arwa Mahdawi

Surveillance software is outing students

Getting your kid ready to go back to school in the US? Well, you’re going to need all the essentials then: a bulletproof backpack and a school-issued tablet or laptop, pre-programmed with creepy spyware. During the pandemic, remote schooling led to a boom in surveillance software which let teachers monitor everything kids were doing on school-issued devices. Now that in-person teaching has resumed, however, the electronic monitoring hasn’t stopped. Rather, it has increased. According to a new report from the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), 89% of teachers have said that their schools will continue using student-monitoring software, up 5% from last year.

School surveillance software is marketed as a way to protect kids and keep them safe. There are various tools out there, but they all make much the same promises about leveraging AI-powered insights to prevent things like self-harm, bullying and school violence. While that all sounds very noble, digital rights experts are concerned that the software, which often continues to run outside school hours, works to punish students rather than protect them. According to the CDT report, “discipline appears to be the predominant intended purpose” of the software and 44% of teachers report that student activity monitoring has led to students being contacted by law enforcement. “Schools have institutionalized and routinized law enforcement’s access to students’ information,” a representative from the CDT told Wired. More specifically, they have institutionalized law enforcement’s access to marginalized students’ information: research shows that low-income students and students of color are more likely to use school-provided devices.

The fact that school-issued technology has basically turned into spyware is particularly disturbing as a number of states are trying to criminalize access to abortions. What happens, for example, if someone in a state like Texas were to search for abortion services on their school-issued laptop? Would the police be alerted?

The rights and privacy of LGBTQ+ students is also another obvious concern. Research has also found that digital surveillance programs like Gaggle, which monitors millions of students, are inappropriately flagging LGBTQ+ content as “pornographic” and reporting incidences of students who use sexuality-related terms such as “gay” and “lesbian”. Gaggle has said that this is for the benefit of LGBTQ+ students, in order to prevent bullying and harassment. However, there have been several reported incidents where the software has outed children to their parents without their knowledge or consent. According to the CDT, 13% of students reported that they, or someone they knew, had had their gender identity or sexual orientation outed by student activity monitoring software.

As well as being a privacy nightmare, there are also opportunity costs associated with this software. School districts are shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for highly problematic monitoring technology while 94% of teachers are forced to buy school supplies out of their own pockets. As the ACLU’s advocacy and policy counsel, Chad Marlow, told Gizmodo, every dollar that is spent on monitoring software is a dollar that isn’t being spent paying for mental health professionals or teachers. “They [schools] are forgoing opportunities to bring in real help that will actually reduce violence, help kids feel more protected, and will help kids get the resources they need.” Ultimately the boom in student monitoring software is a depressing reminder of how little society values ​​teachers and how much it fetishizes technology. You don’t need fancy AI-powered software to figure out if a kid is having a hard time or exhibiting problematic behaviour. That’s what teachers are for. That’s what school guidance counselors are for. How about we try funding educators for a change, instead of handing over desperately limited funds to tech bros?

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