It is what high school teachers see when they open GoGuardian, a popular software application used to monitor student activity: The interface is familiar, as is the gallery view of a large Zoom call. But instead of seeing teenage faces in each picture, the teacher sees thumbnails showing the screens of each student’s laptop. They watch as students’ markers skim across the lines of a sonnet, or the word “chlorofluorocarbon” appears, painstakingly typed into a search bar. If a student is lured by a distraction – an online game, a stunt video – the teacher can see that too and remind the student to stay on task via a private message sent via GoGuardian. If that student has gone off task a few too many times, the teacher can take the remote control of the device and zap the tab themselves.
Student monitoring software has come under renewed scrutiny during the Covid-19 pandemic. As students in the United States were forced to continue their schooling virtually, many brought home school supplies. Built into these machines was software that can allow teachers to view and control students’ screens, use artificial intelligence to scan text from students’ emails and cloud-based documents, and in severe cases send warnings about potential violent threats or psychological harm to educators . and local law enforcement after school hours.
Now that the majority of American students are finally going back to school in person, the surveillance software that proliferated during the pandemic will remain on their school-issued devices, where it will continue to watch them. According to a report released today from the Center for Democracy and Technology, 89 percent of teachers said their schools will continue to use student monitoring software, up 5 percentage points from last year. At the same time, the overturning is off Roe v. Wade has led to new concerns about digital surveillance in states that have made abortion care illegal. Proposals targeting LGBTQ youth, such as the Texas governor’s calls to investigate the families of children who seek gender affirming careraising further concerns about how data collected through school-issued devices could be weaponized in September.
The CDT report also reveals how monitoring software can bridge the gap between classrooms and cancer systems. Forty-four percent of teachers reported that at least one student at their school has been contacted by law enforcement as a result of behavior flagged by the monitoring software. And 37 percent of teachers who say their school uses after-hours activity monitoring report that such alerts are directed to “a third party focused on public safety” (eg, local police, immigration enforcement). “Schools have institutionalized and routined law enforcement access to student information,” says Elizabeth Laird, director of civil technology equity at CDT.
US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have recently raised concerns about the software’s facilitation of contact with law enforcement, suggesting the products could also be used to criminalize students seeking reproductive health resources on school-issued devices. The senators have sought answers from four major surveillance companies: GoGuardian, Gaggle, Securly and Bark for Schools, which together reach thousands of school districts and millions of American students.
Widespread concerns about teen mental health and school violence provide a bleak backdrop to the back-to-school season. After the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Congress passed a law that provides $300 million to schools to strengthen safety infrastructure. Surveillance companies speak to educators’ fears, often touting their products’ ability to zero in on potential student attackers. Securly’s website offers educators “AI-powered insights into student activity for email, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive files.” It calls on them to “approach student safety from every angle, across every platform and identify students who may be at risk of harming themselves or others.”
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Before Roe decision brought more attention to the risks of digital surveillance, lawmakers and privacy advocates were already concerned about student monitoring software. In March 2022, an investigation led by Senators Warren and Markey found that the aforementioned four companies—which sell digital student monitoring services to K-12 schools—raised “significant privacy and fairness concerns.” The study found that low-income students (who tend to be disproportionately black and Hispanic) are more dependent on school supplies and face more surveillance than wealthy students; it also revealed that schools and businesses were often under no obligation to disclose the use and extent of their surveillance to students and parents. In some cases, districts may choose to have a business send alerts directly to law enforcement instead of a school contact.
Students are often unaware that their AI hall monitors are imperfect and subject to abuse. A study of The 74 Million found that Gaggle would send students warning emails for harmless content, such as profanity in a fiction submission to the school’s literary magazine. A high school newspaper reported that the district used surveillance software to reveal a student’s sexuality and turn the student over to their parents. (Today’s CDT report revealed that 13 percent of students knew someone who had been expelled as a result of student monitoring software.) A The editors of the Texas Student Newspaper argued that their school’s use of the software could prevent students from seeking mental health support.
Also disturbing are the reports of surveillance software infringing on students’ after-school lives. An associate principal I spoke with for this story says his district would receive “Questionable Content” email alerts from Gaggle about pornographic images and profanity from students’ text messages. But the students weren’t texting on their school-issued Chromebooks. When administrators investigated, they found that while teenagers were at home, they would charge their phones by connecting them to their laptops via USB cables. The teens would then go on to have what they thought were private conversations via text, in some cases exchanging nude photos with significant others — all of which the Gaggle software running on the Chromebook could record. Now, the school discourages students from connecting their personal devices to their school-issued laptops.
This extensive surveillance has always been troubling to privacy advocates, but the criminalization of reproductive health care in some states makes these issues more acute. It’s not hard to imagine a student living in a state where it is illegal to terminate a pregnancy using a search engine to find out-of-state abortion clinics or chatting online with a friend about an unplanned pregnancy. From there, teachers and administrators could take it upon themselves to inform the student’s parent or local law enforcement.