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Monitoring software on students’ school laptops raises privacy concerns

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Schools' use of monitoring software to keep track of students has been increasing. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

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Ever since students have had the ability to go online at school, schools have been watching what they do. Through the use of activity monitoring software, schools can filter out certain websites or look for signs that students might harm themselves or others.

During the pandemic, when school went virtual, districts spent billions on devices and software for students to use while at home. Now, many are back in the classroom.

But a report out today from the Center for Democracy and Technology finds the use of tracking software is expanding – 89% of American public school teachers say their school uses software to keep track of students online, according to that new report.

“Schools are under unbelievable pressure to keep students safe from harming themselves or harming others,” said Elizabeth Laird, one of the authors. 

Parents and kids say they support monitoring – if it’s used, for example, to identify students who are suicidal.

But the survey found it was more common to flag a student for things like cheating or cyberbullying.

Laird said that’s more likely to hurt kids who are Black, Hispanic, or low-income and tend to rely on school-issued devices. 

“If you don’t have an alternative, and you can’t opt out of this tracking, you would be subjected to more discipline than your peers,” she said.

Companies have said their software isn’t meant to be used in this way. But Amelia Vance, a consultant on child and student privacy issues, is concerned about potentially invasive data collection.

“There are more records kept than there ever was in the past,” she said.

Vance points out that federal policymakers are concerned about the monitoring, but are also considering requiring more of it. 

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