Should Schools Remove Pandemic-Era Surveillance Software?

Implemented while kids were at home, the tech is still largely in use

Two students in a classroom look at a laptop on a table
Many teachers have said that their schools will continue using student-monitoring software during the upcoming school year.
Marko Geber via Getty

It’s almost back-to-school season, which means kids will soon return to their locker-lined halls with new clothes, new school supplies and invasive spyware on their school computers.

When schooling went mostly online during the pandemic, teachers and administrators sought ways to make sure students were actively learning from home as well as help them from afar. One common solution was the use of student-monitoring software on school equipment, which allows teachers to do things like see and control students’ screens, access their cloud storage and even, when red flags pop up, alert officials of possible mental-health issues.

The line between private lives and school purview is becoming blurred by this software. In one case, as Wired reported in a recent article on digital surveillance at school, teenagers connected their personal phones to school laptops, and the monitoring software was able to detect nude photos some students were exchanging via text.

The prevalence of these monitoring systems is giving rise to new problems surrounding student privacy and data monitoring. According to an August report from the Center for Democracy and Technology, “89 percent of teachers have said that their schools will continue using student-monitoring software” even as the children go back to in-person learning. 

Students are feeling the impact of this constant surveillance. The report found that “half of all students said they felt unease expressing their true thoughts and feelings online if they knew they were monitored.” Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit advocacy group in the area of digital rights, says that the tools used by schools are similar to “stalkerware. “They don’t just violate students’ privacy,” she told Gizmodo, “they pose an enormous cybersecurity threat, and put students’ lives in danger.” 

These tools could also potentially be used against students who are trying to access gender-affirming care or abortion services. Albert Fox Cahn, director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said that “the school surveillance state will become another ways [sic] these invasive laws are enforced,” per Gizmodo.

Now, groups like S.T.O.P and Fight for the Future are pressuring the Biden administration to issue guidance about monitoring software, as well as saying that Congress should consider laws banning the tech inside and outside of schools.

Of course, there are certain benefits to this technology, like being able to help students learn from separate locations and even flagging kids who could be experiencing a mental health crisis. However, according to the CDT report, 44% of teachers surveyed said the software led to at least one student in their school being contacted by law enforcement, and 13% of students said they knew someone whose sexual orientation or gender identity had been outed due to the software.

As students head back to school, student safety should be top of mind. However, some experts say a renewed focus on person-to-person care instead of student monitoring should take priority. As Greer pointed out to Gizmodo, “Surveillance always comes with inherent forms of abuse. There are other ways to support and protect kids that don’t.”

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