US schools gave kids laptops during the pandemic. Then they spied on them

Photograph by Dominic Lipinski/PA
Many forms of inequality were revealed when the pandemic began last year. This included the millions of Americans without broadband internet or laptops. After some delay, schools across the nation jumped in to action and distributed technology so students could learn remotely. But here's the catch. The catch? They were spying on students. They did this for their own good.

Recent research from the Center for Democracy and Technology, (CDT) shows that 86% of teachers said that schools provided Chromebooks, tablets, and laptops to students twice as often (43%) before the pandemic. This is an example of schools' efforts to reduce digital access gaps.

Many of these electronics were used to monitor students. They even scanned emails, private chats and documents in order to protect them. The CDT surveyed more than 80% of teachers and 77% high school students. They said that surveillance software was used in schools. Students are more dependent on these devices and are less able to afford tablets or supplementary phones.

A school administrator told the CDT researchers that they knew there were students who had thoughts about suicide, self-harm, and other things. This [student activity tracking software] was found. We could also help students with bullying thoughts [I]f I can stop one student from taking their own lives, that's a great deal.

In the United States, thousands of school districts have installed surveillance software to monitor students' online interactions. An AI bot, or a human moderator, can monitor student chats and send alerts to teachers or administrators if they think a student is trying to harm themselves or are having trouble at home.

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These programs, like Bark, Gnosis IQ and Gaggle can cost schools tens to thousands of dollars to put into place. They can also be used to search online for language and behavior that could indicate violent tendencies, suicidal ideastion, drug abuse, pornography, or eating disorders.

It is understandable that schools would invest in technology to prevent teenage suicide and bullying. Everyone has suffered from the pandemic, but teens and children are particularly affected by increased isolation and uncertainty. Students have reported an increase in self-harm and aggressive impulses after the lockdown began. It will take adjustments to get everyone back together for a new schoolyear. We've done this before in a different way. The solution everyone proposed to school shootings was to watch more closely.

This was big business. Schools spent billions on security infrastructure that proved ineffective. The results? Well, you won't believe it! Children felt unsafe, Black students were harassed and followed the most, and punishments increased when educational outcomes deteriorated. While some schools are questioning whether contracts with police cause more harm than good for their students, others simply add digital surveillance to their physical systems.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be less likely to have their private electronics unsubject to surveillance and have less privacy when it is about the embarrassing things teenagers do. Students who make references to drugs, pornography, or other violent thoughts may be reported to the police. This will, as usual, affect the children already subject to increased interactions with social workers, police, and other forms punishments.

While parents and schools are quick to raise concerns about privacy, it is not clear if all this monitoring has resulted in safety. Safer for students? Students are more aware that they are being watched, but not all the time. Surveys show this. Many programs allow teachers to have access to students' screens even after school hours. Administrators and teachers can remotely take control of computers, closing tabs or overriding their keyboards. Is that safe for kids?

There is also the issue of the promise to intervene. Software companies claim that surveillance is designed to detect and intervene quickly when there is a problem. This intervention could lead to the presence social workers and police, each with their own history of involvement in private homes. Information about the child's attempts to get outside help may be passed to their abuser, their parents. Rape Abuse Incest National Network, (Rainn), reported that more than half their callers for assistance and counsel during the pandemic were minors. This was because they were more likely to find themselves trapped in homes with abusive family members or under stress.

Software companies also promise that they can alert mental health professionals and provide services to children with problems. However, outcomes for children's mental health care are not always as good. Children who have Medicaid coverage are more likely than others to receive anti-psychotics or other debilitating medication.

It is not clear if students will benefit from the surveillance or if it will reduce school liability when violence or self-harm occurs. It is obvious that teens need help. To protect them, you must ensure that they have adults they can trust. An AI that snoops on teens is not a substitute.

Teens have the right to privacy for the same reasons as the rest of us: they should not feel violated, paranoid, or be punished for minor infractions. Teens need privacy to make confusing memes and new TikTok dance moves. They have the right to scare adults. We need to allow them to do that.

Jessa Crispin, a Guardian US columnist