Grooming Students for A Lifetime of Surveillance

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

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

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

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:

  • RFID chips embed­ded into stu­dent badges to mon­i­tor stu­dent atten­dance (this is tied to state fund­ing) and track stu­dent move­ment around on campus.
  • Met­al detec­tors and scan­ners, which despite effi­ca­cy con­cerns, are installed and require stu­dents to sub­mit to being searched before enter­ing a school building.
  • Bio­met­ric iden­ti­fi­ca­tion soft­ware, which uses facial recog­ni­tion and oth­er traits to track atten­dance in some edu­ca­tion­al institutions.

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

Irwin hallway. Photo CC-BY Seth Tisue, filtered.

Irwin hall­way.
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.