Money Management

Is Big Brother watching your child? Probably.

One of the current trends in education is the increasing surveillance of students.

The idea is not new. For several years, companies have been selling versions of student tracking as an educational tool. There were pitches for software that read facial expressions and eye movements to determine whether students were learning. Companies are preparing sales pitches for software that will measure the social and emotional well-being students. NWEA testing company is ready to measure student engagement depending on how quickly they answer the multiple-choice questions. A Dutch Company Believes It Can Do Amazing Things With student audio monitoring.

These miracle educational technology programs over-promise and under-deliver, but as they struggle to establish their education in good faith, surveillance companies have found another selling point to extend their reach into schools.

Florida has been on the cutting edge of this development. After the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School murdersthe legislator adopted the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas School Public Safety Act. The part of the law that caught the eye at the time was raising the age to purchase firearms in Florida. But perhaps more remarkable is that lawmakers said what was really needed to make schools safer was complete supervision of all students, 24/7. The new database should include every student’s academic record, plus everything related to state-run social and legal programs. The program is also supposed to monitor students’ social media accounts and collect “thousands of hours of video footage”. Security cameras were once ubiquitous, but now facial recognition software in schools is a growing reality. Florida’s entire data processing program is kept secret; an unknown algorithm will decide if a student is a threat. Many, many people have objections expressedincluding the observation that there is no evidence that such monitoring works. There are lots of reasons to worry about this massive level of data mining, but so far things are moving forward.

To protect you, we just need to watch over you and everything you do, all day, every day.

Are there companies willing to take on this type of work? Absoutely. They’re called security management programs (SMP) and they’re everywhere.

Meet Bark, a company that offers 24/7 “account monitoring” of G Suite and Office 365 in the school system. In an example, a student wrote an email to another student “talking about self-harm”. The director was alerted at his home. Bark claims to have discovered 1,494,438 numbers in the Spring 2018 semester (that’s an average of 0.85 problems per student, suggesting either an extremely troubled student body or a pretty low bar for “problems”.) There’s also Safely (“the student security company”) and GoGuardian (“have a view of student activity”). Everything that passes through the school’s educational resources can be monitored, right down to every keystroke on every school-provided computer.

Herd is another company working the same type of service. Their website claims to have averted 722 suicides last year. It is not nothing, even if it is only partly true. This is of course the advantage of this type of student monitoring activity. If a company promises that its technology will increase ratings, that’s a measurable result. But “proactive” predictive software cannot really be measured. If I promise you that my monitoring software will prevent all future rhino attacks next year, I can proudly point to zero attacks and take credit for that.

But Gaggle is also an example of mission drift in the surveillance industry. Cory Doctorow at Buzzfeed Reports that in a now-deleted blog post, Gaggle promised he could help the school district administration “detect unrest among teachers.” Doctorow quotes from the post, “Think of the recent work stoppage of teachers in West Virginia. Could the story have been different if school leaders had requested search results for ‘health insurance’ or ‘strike’ from teachers? months earlier? Occasional searches for “salary” or “layoffs” could avoid staff concerns that lead to unfavorable press for your school district.”

This “security through surveillance” approach takes on a national dimension. Last week, US Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the Restoration, Improvement, Strengthening and Promotion of Our Nation’s Security Efforts Act (RESPONSE). Presented as a response to the school shootings, it has, as noted by reviewers, almost nothing to do with guns, and a lot to do with increased surveillance (as well as the targeting of people with mental health issues). Its only gun-related component is the creation of a task force to crack down on illegal gun dealers.

But for schools, it encourages the kind of oversight that Florida has pioneered with a focus on follow these students on social networks.

Not everyone will find this disturbing (in fact, if you have money to spend and want to put your own family under 24/7 surveillance, there is a compassny for that). Some might say, “Well, at least we’re not as far as China.“But if you want to erode civil liberties and traditions of privacy, it’s best to start with people who don’t have the political power to fight back. Children are ideal – not only can’t they fight back, but they’ll grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal to live under constant surveillance. For their own safety, of course.