Grooming Students for A Lifetime of Surveillance

The same technologists who protest against the NSA’s metadata collection programs are the ones profiting the most from the widespread surveillance of students.

by Jessy Irwin on October 7th, 2014

Since 2011, billions of dollars of venture capital investment have poured into public education through private, for-profit technologies that promise to revolutionize education. Designed for the “21st century” classroom, these tools promise to remedy the many, many societal ills facing public education with artificial intelligence, machine learning, data mining, and other technological advancements.

They are also being used to track and record every move students make in the classroom, grooming students for a lifetime of surveillance and turning education into one of the most data-intensive industries on the face of the earth. The NSA has nothing on the monitoring tools that education technologists have developed in to “personalize” and “adapt” learning for students in public school districts across the United States.

(Mega)data Collection + Analysis

Desks in an empty classroom with the blinds closed.

Photo CC-BY Esparta Palma, filtered.

“Adaptive”, “personalized” learning platforms are one of the most heavily-funded verticals in education technology. By breaking down learning into a series of tasks, and further distilling those tasks down to a series of clicks that can be measured and analyzed, companies like Knewton (which has raised $105 million in venture capital), or the recently shuttered inBloom (which raised over $100 million from the Gates Foundation) gather immense amounts of information about students into a lengthy profile containing personal information, socioeconomic status and other data that is mined for patterns and insights to improve performance. For students, these clickstreams and data trails begin when they are 5 years old, barely able to read much less type in usernames and passwords required to access their online learning portals.

Data collection and number crunching aren’t the only technologies being explored to revolutionize education– technology billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates funded a $1.1 million project to fit middle-school students with biometric sensors to monitor their response and engagement levels during lessons, and advocated a $5 billion program to install video cameras in every classroom to record teachers for evaluation.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a law put in place in 1974 to protect student academic records, does nothing to protect student data when it is in the hands of education technology companies. Instead, FERPA threatens to take federal funding away from schools who are found to have breached student privacy while it fails to mandate bare minimum security standards for the storage and transmission of student data. In fact, a recent revision of FERPA increased the power that companies have to collect and mine student data.  Though lawmakers and privacy advocates are regularly outraged at the immense volume of student data freely floating through the web, the repeated failure to create legislation that protects student data from being used for profit is astounding.

One thing is clear: those who have the power to protect student privacy will not do so as long as they can continue to subsidize the cost of public education with student data.

Internet Censorship in Schools

In most educational institutions, the vast majority of IT operations are focused on monitoring, filtering and blocking web traffic instead of building secure networks that safeguard student records and sensitive behavioral data. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the widespread adoption of web filtering software tools in K-12 schools. Usage of these technologies is required for compliance with programs like E-Rate, which grant federal money to schools to fund internet access for their students.

To be eligible for funding from the E-Rate program, schools are required to comply with federal regulations that ban access to websites displaying pornography, graphic material, or any other that could otherwise be judged as immoral, improper or lewd. More often than not, this subjective criteria is determined by the opinions and belief systems of school administrators under political pressure to deny students access to content on controversial issues about topics like evolution, birth control and sex education. These decisions disproportionately affect young girls and LGBTQ students by denying them access to sites that provide important information about their rights, their developing bodies, their sexuality and their access to contraceptives. In the case of Securly, the first filtering tool designed for schools, the controls set by IT and administration for web access can extend far beyond the walls of the school and determine what content students can access while using school- issued machines from their home internet connections.

Despite the many positive contributions of the internet in the distribution and dissemination of knowledge across the planet, students are regularly denied access to valuable information that could positively impact their learning… all to safeguard a small percentage of federal budget money granted to their schools. The implications of this are particularly severe for low-income students who do not have access to the Internet at home; without the ability to freely access the web on their own terms, their digital literacy skills lag behind those of their affluent peers. Though teachers request better and broader internet access for students in their classrooms, administrator-imposed blocks and filters on school internet leave most students woefully unprepared to navigate the realities of the web. When students do find a way around the tools used to limit their access to the outside world (this happened with a group of students who were given iPads in the Los Angeles United School district last year), they’re labelled as “hackers” or miscreants, and disciplined for using Tor, a tool popular among students for anonymous web browsing and circumventing blacklists that ban websites from school networks.

Social Media Surveillance

Close-up of a web cam.

Photo CC-BY myriad ways, filtered.

Schools are adopting many other surveillance technologies with unprecedented reach into the private communications and lives of students and their families. In Lower Merion, PA, a suburb outside of Philadelphia, educators engaged remote administration tools on students’ laptops to regularly spy on their activities while at home. In a case that made its way into federal courts, one student was punished by administrators who mistook candy pictured through his laptop’s camera for drugs. While the full extent of the spying was never exposed, parents and students have expressed concern about educators having the ability to watch young girls undress in the privacy of their homes, unaware that they were being watched through their school-issued computers.

In 2013, the Glendale Unified School District in Glendale, CA took a move straight from the NSA surveillance handbook by seeking out a $40,000 contract with Geo Listening, a social media monitoring company that charges schools to eavesdrop on student social media chatter. While the company claims to only access posts that are public in the school districts they work with, and says it works closely with school districts to tailor their monitoring programs to prevent cyberbullying, suicide and active shooter incidents, it is very easy— too easy, in fact— to use such technologies to identify and target students who have been labeled deviant or delinquent within their communities, or who are otherwise outspoken and critical of their teachers and schools.

Schools are also demanding access to students’ social media communications in ways that severely harm their constitutionally protected rights to free speech. In Minnewaska, MN, a female student who complained about a hall monitor’s behavior in a Facebook post was questioned and given in-school suspension. Later, when a parent reported the student for “sexting” over Facebook with a classmate, she was removed from class again as a group of educators and a police officer armed with a taser demanded that the student hand over her password. They then read private communications that took place outside of school through her Facebook account. After being pulled from class multiple times, suspended from school, and barred from attending a school field trip (the same punishment was not doled out to the male student involved in the messaging), the ACLU stepped in to defend the student’s right to privacy and free speech in communications outside of school property. Though the ruling in the case upheld students’ protection under the 1st and 4th amendments, school districts around the country continue to demand access to students’ social media accounts and threaten to mark students’ academic records to make it difficult to get into a desired university or to seek other avenues for continued education.

Physical Surveillance

In addition to the online monitoring taking place in schools, there are many surveillance mechanisms in place to enforce physical security in public schools. Since the shootings that took place at Virginia Tech in 2007, and again after those that took place in Sandy Hook, CT in 2012, technology companies have launched myriad tools designed to minimize the potential loss of life in the next active shooting incident at a school. Some of these technologies include:

By preying on the absolute worst fears of administrators and parents across the country, technology companies are earning millions of dollars selling security “solutions” that do not accurately address the threat model these tools claim to dispel. School districts that purchase these systems further perpetuate the farce of security theater and infringe on students’ rights to privacy and individual freedom.

A Lifetime of Surveillance

A metal detector at the entrance of a school.

Photo CC-BY Seth Tisue, filtered.

When we develop and use educational technologies that monitor a student’s every moment in school and online, we groom that student for a lifetime of surveillance from the NSA, from data brokers, from advertisers, marketers, and even CCTV cameras. By watching every move that students make while learning, we model to students that we do not trust them– that ultimately, their every move will be under scrutiny from others. When students recognize that they are being watched, they begin to act differently– and from that very moment they begin to cede one small bit of freedom at a time.

Though the education technology revolution continually promises a silver bullet that will be a great democratizing force for all of society’s ills, it categorically disregards the patriarchal power structures and biases that both legitimate and perpetuate discrimination against minorities and marginalized groups. Despite it being well within the scope of educational technology tools to track, identify and expose biases towards groups of students, technologists avoid implementing small changes that monitor educator performance and correct for unconscious biases that negatively affect student learning. Because the surveillance taking place in schools is typically based on qualitative criteria like morality, appropriateness and good behavior, these technologies extend current practices and prejudices that perpetuate injustices against marginalized groups.

There are few to no safeguards built into the online and offline monitoring systems to protect students from the abuse of these tools. Young female students who are active on social media can be unfairly targeted, slut-shamed and disciplined for suggestive language that takes place outside of school, while their male counterparts are not held equally accountable for participating in sexually charged online conversations. Youth of color, a group that is disproportionately stereotyped as angry, aggressive, and unpredictable by educators, can easily be monitored, disciplined, and entered into the juvenile justice system for any outburst that could vaguely be misinterpreted as a threat to a homogeneous caucasian school culture. Any student grappling with issues of abuse, depression, disability, gender identity or sexuality could easily be discovered by online surveillance tools, stigmatized and outed to their teachers, parents and wider community.

Education technologists also continue to widen the digital divide between affluent and economically oppressed. Despite an industry-wide insistence that technology is not being developed to replace educators in the classroom, many poor school districts faced with massive budget cuts are implementing experimental blended learning programs reliant on “adaptive” and “personalized” software as a way to mitigate the effect of large class sizes on student learning. This means that students who attend costly private schools or live within rich school districts that can afford to employ more educators and maintain smaller class sizes receive much more personalized instruction from their teachers. Instead of receiving much-needed interaction and personalized learning directly from educators, poor students living in disadvantaged communities receive instruction from educational software that collects their data (which is likely to be sold), and have less individual instruction time from teachers than their affluent counterparts.

By developing technologies that collect, track, record, analyze every move a student makes both online and off, technologists and investors and educators are ensuring that today’s students will have less privacy than any other generation that came before them, threatening to make privacy and anonymity unattainable for future generations. Though the surveillance mechanisms at play in education technologies affect the privacy of millions of students who pass through the education system each year, this system is a profound, persistent threat to the privacy and individual liberty of LGBTQ students, low-income students, and students of color who have already been so severely failed by the status quo.

Ironically, the same technologists and investors who protest against the NSA’s metadata collection programs are the ones profiting the most from the widespread surveillance of students across the country, by building educational tools with the same function.