The Iowa City Community School District is exploring the creepy world of student social media monitoring.
This month, the school board heard presentations from two companies pitching digital surveillance services, part of the district’s efforts to increase school safety.
It’s another sign that the internet is erasing the distinction between young people’s school lives and personal lives. Millions of American students are given Google accounts through public schools, and many of them use that same login for their email, YouTube and web browsing at home. Increasingly, school officials are concerned with students’ social media activity, even when it’s outside the school day.
The companies, Gaggle and Securly, track students’ digital lives and flag potential threats for in-house analysts and school officials to review. They focus on school-related services like Google Drive, but social media also plays a part.
To their credit, the third-party internet surveillance firms genuinely seem most interested in detecting signs of suicidal thought and self harm, which are legitimate concerns. In the process, however, they will scrape other potentially sensitive information and store it for several years.
What if the system flags information about students’ immigration status, political activity or sexuality? Or 18-year-old high school seniors sending nude pictures or experimenting with soft drugs? In some cases, that information could find its way to school administrators and even law enforcement officials.
Companies emphasize they comply with privacy laws and best practices, but there is no such thing as total data privacy. Once information is stored, there’s always a possibility it will be inappropriately accessed.
The student surveillance industry is overrun with buzz words, misinformation and fearmongering.
Digital citizenship. Crowd-sourcing. Machine-learning algorithm. Those are warm and fuzzy phrases meant to make us feel secure in the arms of corporate tech.
Discussing an out-of-state case where a student allegedly sought to join ISIS, a Securly company representative at the school board meeting said, “There are plenty of kids like (him) walking around every school in every district in this country who need help.”
Kids in every school district who are trying to join international terrorist networks? I doubt that.
To show how sneaky kids are on the internet, a Gaggle company representative told School Board members that the average seventh-grader has six Instagram accounts. If that’s true, American seventh-graders make up nearly one-quarter of Instagram’s 100 million U.S. users, according to my calculation. Maybe the junior high lobby is trying to influence our elections.
A parent testimonial from Gaggle aptly sums up the student surveillance philosophy: “If it’s going to protect my child or save my child, I don’t care how you get the information, just get it.”
I worry young people will heed that message — safety at any cost, privacy be damned. They will grow up to accept constant government surveillance in a world where everything they do is recorded. It’s all they’ve ever known, and they won’t think to question it.
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