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Monitoring students on school laptops raises equity, privacy concerns
Oct 13, 2021

Monitoring students on school laptops raises equity, privacy concerns

Devices loaned to kids during the pandemic were often loaded with surveillance software.

During the pandemic, a lot of school districts loaned laptops, tablets or other devices to students who didn’t have their own. And many of those schools installed software on the devices that can track what a student is searching for and looking at. School administrators say they need to monitor students this way so they can flag a kid who is in trouble. Like maybe they’re Googling certain words that might indicate they are thinking about harming themselves.

But do students and their parents actually know they’re being tracked and in what ways?

Elizabeth Laird is the director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Equity in Civic Technology Project and has recently done research on this. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Elizabeth Laird: School districts are clear that when students are using devices, they shouldn’t have any expectation of privacy. But, how they’re tracking what students are doing and when — they are not as transparent about that. So for example, one of the things that our research was interested in was, when are schools tracking what students are doing? Is it limited to school hours? Or is it happening outside of then? What we found is that only 1 in 4 teachers report that monitoring is specifically limited to school hours. So, if you’re a student or you’re a parent, you may not know that students are being tracked, not just during the school day, but actually after school hours or on the weekend.

Elizabeth Laird smiles for her headshot wearing a pink top. She poses in front of a sign that says "Center for Democracy and Technology."
Elizabeth Laird (Courtesy John Will)

Marielle Segarra: And what do you think schools are actually looking for? What do they want to know about what students are doing?

Laird: One reason that schools are tracking what students are doing is a perception that they have to do it for legal compliance. There is a law called the Children’s Internet Protection Act. In order for schools to receive funding to support their educational-technology efforts through the E-rate funding, which is a federal funding program, they have to say that they comply with CIPA. The other reason is for purposes of keeping them safe. We’ve seen schools really rely on, increasingly, this kind of student-activity monitoring to do, like, keyword searches to try and understand if a student is considering harming themselves or potentially perpetrating an act of mass violence.

Segarra: What are the concerns you have with schools monitoring students on their school-issued devices?

Laird: I think the, the main concern that drove our research in this area was one of equity and potentially limiting opportunities for certain groups of students. And that comes down to having certain groups of students be surveilled disproportionately than their peers. Then that would fall along certain demographics like socioeconomic status as well as race. And I think our research does suggest that can happen. Another concern that we had was would this potentially result in outing LGBTQ+ students? If you’re monitoring for terms or resources or websites that may be sexual in nature, something that could be a student reaching out for additional resources or support could be flagged. Their school could become aware of that, and maybe that gets shared with their parent in a way that that student isn’t comfortable with. And we did find that the majority of parents and teachers and students are concerned about that. Schools exist to help young minds become the best that they can be, and part of that means you create an environment in which students are free to express themselves. They can learn. They can make mistakes. And do these tools actually have a chilling effect on students’ ability to access resources they need to access? Or not really feel like they can say what they want to say? Our research does suggest that is true. Eighty percent of students report that they don’t, or that they’re more careful about what they access online, when they know they’re being monitored. And almost 60% say that they don’t feel comfortable expressing their true thoughts and feelings when they’re being monitored. The larger point here is: Do these tools actually undermine the mission of schools in trying to help students become the best that they can be?

Segarra: Do you think there’s a way to do this that is helpful and not invasive?

Laird: There’s definitely room for improvement for schools to be way more transparent around what they’re doing. Tell parents and students, “This is when we’re tracking you. This is why we’re tracking you. This is how long we keep this information.” And that, per our research, isn’t happening right now. And if school districts do choose to use these tools, really minimizing the information that is collected, who has access to it to only the most critical uses that you have articulated as a school. Then I think the last thing that I would flag that they can do is really just building capacity within the whole system, from within schools to within communities — to be having a conversation around what are ethical and responsible uses of these tools, and what are the things that folks are most worried about so that they can guard against them.

Related links: More insight from Marielle Segarra

Parents and teachers surveyed by Laird’s team said they felt the benefits of this software generally outweighed the risks. And half of students said they were very or somewhat comfortable with the software.

But the folks who were the most positive about the technology were at schools that were already using it. Which for Laird raised a question — does the presence of these programs normalize them? And normalize surveillance?

Eighty-six percent of teachers said their schools were providing devices to students during the pandemic, twice as many as before.

The Wall Street Journal has a story about this kind of artificial intelligence that can scan students’ devices for signs that they’re anxious or depressed, have an eating disorder or that they’re getting bullied or considering self-harm. And it quotes some school district employees, like a superintendent who said a program like this allowed the school to step in and help a student who really needed it. Another school employee said he had mixed feelings about the surveillance, but “if we’re going to err on one side it has to be on the side of safety.”

I guess the question is: What are schools doing to make sure these programs are used to help students, not to discipline them or look for minor infractions? Especially because, as Laird pointed out, there’s an equity issue here. Lower-income students are less likely to have their own devices and more likely to use the school-issued ones. Which means they’re also more likely to be tracked.

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