More than a dozen rights groups and education organizations wrote a letter urgently calling on the Department of Education to take a stance on controversial student monitoring software, which they say violates students’ privacy and threatens to undermine hard-fought civil rights gains.
Digital rights and privacy experts shared similar concerns with Gizmodo and claimed these technologies, often implemented in the name of safety, actually make schools less safe for students. The letter comes on the heels of newly-released research from The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) which claims a staggering 89% of U.S. teachers report using software capable of tracking their students’ online activity.
The organizations, which includes the CDT, American Civil Liberties Union, and American Association of School Librarians, claim these monitoring tools, which exploded in use during the pandemic and have gained favor as a means of safety following the horrific Uvalde, Texas school shooting, are “often used in ways that discriminate against protected groups of students.” The groups cite the new CDT research, claiming the continued prevalence of monitoring software (often used even after normal school hours) can exacerbate disproportionately racial school disciplining, lead to increased student interactions with law enforcement for people of color, result in the “outing” of LGBTQ+ students, stifle speech, and exacerbate students’ mental health struggles. All of these factors, the groups argue, are more likely to affect low-income students and students of color, who previous research has shown are more likely to use school-provided technology.
Collectively, the groups called on the DOE to condemn the use of particular monitoring tools found to run afoul of student civil liberties, and issue a policy statement laying out the connections between civil rights laws and student monitoring activity.
In a phone interview with Gizmodo, ACLU Advocacy and Policy Counsel Chad Marlow said they understood why, at a time of escalating shootings, schools would be drawn to monitoring solutions, but warned those very same tools could lead vulnerable students to feel less comfortable turning to peers, counselors or other professional for help.
“These schools and school districts, in their understandable desire to help students, are actually hurting their students, not helping them and are being misled into thinking these interventions are helpful,” Marlow said. “Here we’re talking about really significant harms to kids.”
Those tech-based interventions, Marlow said, come with opportunity costs. For every dollar spent on software able to monitor key stories or cameras monitoring students’ footsteps, that’s one less dollar spent paying the salary of a mental health professional who may be better suited at identifying a struggling child, or a new teacher that could motivate a student.
“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,” Marlow added.
The Department of Education did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Teachers surveyed by CDT say insights gleaned from their tools are already leading to real-world consequences. Nearly half, (44%) of teachers surveyed say student monitoring activity has led to students being contacted by law enforcement. Over one in 10 students say they or someone they know has experienced nonconsensual outing of their sexual orientation or gender identity as a direct result of monitoring software. Another 46% of students say they were contacted by a mental health counselor or another adult questioning their mental health following content flagged by the monitoring tools.
“Our data shows that nearly half of teachers say they know of at least one student who has been contacted by law enforcement as a result of student activity monitoring,” CDT President and CEP Alexandra Reeve Givens said in a statement. “When you combine the resurgence of violence in schools with the mental health crisis among kids, schools are surveilling students’ activities more than ever. But these efforts to make students safer more often result in disciplining students instead.”
There are also early signs the pervasive nature of these tools may also quell student speech and creativity. Around half of all students said they felt unease expressing their true thoughts and feelings online if they knew they were monitored. That figure ticked up even higher for children with learning disabilities.
All of this is concerning to a majority of students and parents. 61% of parents and 57% of students surveyed said they were either very or somewhat concerned with the privacy and security of their data and how their school is using it. The CDT research, which offers the clearest glimpse yet on the state of remote surveillance technologies in U.S. schools, relied on surveys of students between grades 9-12, as well as teachers teaching between grades 6-10. Researchers also surveyed the parents of students between grades 6-12.
Gizmodo spoke to several digital rights and privacy groups who shared their concerns on the sharp uptick in commercial school surveillance software in recent years. Fight for the Future Director Evan Greer argued remote monitoring tools may actually make schools less safe for students and said some of the tools referenced in the report are in effect indistinguishable from “stalkerware” used to spy on dissidents in authoritarian regimes.
“They don’t just violate students’ privacy, they pose an enormous cybersecurity threat, and put students’ lives in danger,” Greer said.
Albert Fox Cahn, director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, expressed particular fears the increased exposure to law enforcement resulting from these tools could exacerbate the U.S.‘s already straightened criminal justice system.
“With this technology, the school-to-prison pipeline can reach into students’ bedroom,” Fox Chan said. “No one should worry having the police at their front door because a google search gets flagged. The more surveillance we have, the more kids will be wrongly arrested.”
Both the report’s authors and the experts speaking with Gizmodo agree the current political climate, where conservative lawmakers in several states are fighting to restrict certain curricula involving race and LGBTQ+ topics and certain states are rushing to pass restrictive anti-abortion laws, make clear guidance around surveillance tools all the more urgent.
“In a world where extremist state officials are criminalizing abortion and directing schools to investigate students who seek gender affirming health care, these monitoring tools can and will be weaponized to deprive young people of their basic human rights,” Greer said. “School districts, teachers, parents, and students should reject this software and refuse to use it. We have to draw a line in the sand before it’s too late.”
Greer added that the Biden administration should immediately issue guidance on K-12 schools against the use of the software and said Congress should consider passing laws banning use of the tech, both in and out of schools.
“It’s terrifying to imagine how this sort of student tracking will be weaponized against pregnant teens seeking abortions and trans kids,” Fox Cahn of S.T.O.P said. “In states that criminalize abortion and gender-affirming care, the school surveillance state will become another ways these invasive laws are enforced.”
More broadly, Marlow of the ACLU says the escalation of these technologies risk fundamentally altering the way children grow and develop in school systems. Constant, monitoring, Marlow warned could turn students into a type of surveilled prisoner.
“When your school starts to feel like a prison and you feel like you are being watched like an inmate, that’s not conducive to a strong academic environment, it’s not good for social and emotional growth, and it actually can end up harming kids.”