More schools than ever give students computers and tablets. They're also surveilling their online activity more than ever.
A student types the word “suicide” into a Google search on their school-supplied Chromebook. It triggers an alert on the school’s cloud access security broker. That’s a software system the school uses to watch for potentially harmful student activity -- either harmful to themselves or to a fellow student.
From there, the system’s machine learning tools try to paint a clearer picture of the situation. Is the student writing an essay for social studies about mental health laws? Maybe they’ve also spent time on suicide prevention websites?
Ben Bayle is the director of technology at DeKalb Public Schools. They use a security company called Securly. He says with their system, at this point, the information is also reviewed by actual people who work for Securly to see if intervention is necessary.
“From there, we can then trigger email responses that go to specific people," he said. "So, it’ll go to building administration. So, the principal, assistant principal, or dean within that building. From there, it can also go to the security manager of the district SROs who are also trained in being able to assist. Then, if it's a truly substantive threat, phone calls start to occur."
Bayle says that every week, he receives around 100 Securly alerts. Many of those are totally harmless. A student might be working on an assignment about gun control and do some firearm-related Google searches that trip an alarm. But he says in DeKalb they get around three or four “semi-substantive” alerts weekly. That means support gets immediately deployed to the student like meetings with a school social worker.
This process, in some form, plays out every day in school districts across the country. According to one survey, 89% of teachers say their school monitors student activity on either school-issued or personal devices. They can see what students search for, who they chat with — even remotely watch their screen.
Before the pandemic, 43% of schools provided students with computers like Chromebook and tablets. Now, it’s well over 80%.
School districts and security companies say that the goal of monitoring is student safety. To help identify and support students -- maybe in a crisis -- who might not reach out for help on their own, but who's online activity indicates they need assistance.
Cody Venzke thinks that’s a great goal but isn’t sure these programs fulfill it. He’s a senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology’s equity in civic technology project. A few months ago, he helped pen a report for CDT called “Hidden Harms: the misleading promise of monitoring students online.”
“We were kind of astounded by what we found, which is, not only is this technology being used in a widespread way, but it has a disproportionate impact on groups of kids,” he said. “We found it's increasing contact with law enforcement, outing LGBTQ+ kids and generally chilling what kids do online. So, this technology was having a very widespread impact on students' experiences.”
Again, nearly 90% of teachers say their school uses this software. But where and when it’s used can be surprising. For one, most monitoring is on school-issued devices, but 18% of educators said their schools monitor students’ own devices. If they’re on the school wireless network or log into a web browser with their school credentials -- the monitoring often continues.
That means students are also monitoring outside of the hours of the school day. It happens at night or if they keep their device on breaks.
In their surveys, a vast majority of parents and almost half of students are comfortable with device surveillance during the school day.
“But when it's following students home," said Venzke, "and being used to measure the mental health or their personal well-being -- that cuts into a space of privacy that students' parents aren't comfortable with."
When 24/7 alerts are first sent to third-party companies, IT professionals and sometimes police before teachers or parents -- they were also surprised.
In DeKalb, security director Ben Bayle says its Securly system doesn’t alert parents directly. But they promote a “parent portal” where parents can review their kids’ web history, look at alerts and block websites.
Another concern the Center for Democracy and Technology study expressed is that monitoring disproportionately impacts marginalized students. Wealthy students are more likely to have their own devices, whereas low-income families might rely on school-issued devices.
Even though discipline isn’t the intended purpose of this software -- it is a result. 70% of teachers said monitoring is used to see if a student has violated a disciplinary policy. And in the CDT study, Black and Hispanic students were more likely to get in trouble as a result of online activity monitoring.
LGBTQ+ language has also been found to be more often flagged by algorithms. Venzke says he’s worried that as schools use this software to get students to resources, those students won’t actually seek support online if they know they’re monitored.
“The internet allows us to connect to a lot of really great important information," said Venzke, "and kids are less likely to access it if they know that they're being surveilled."
A staggering statistic in the CDT report shows that 29% of LGBTQ+ students say they or someone they know have been outed due to online activity software.
Despite concerns and gray areas, Ben Bayle in DeKalb says the positives of proactively helping students before something bad might happen outweigh the negatives.
“I'd much rather be able to say that we're doing everything we can in order to support our students, even when they don't know necessarily that they need the support,” he said.
There are some, even on Capitol Hill, who share concerns about student monitoring in regard to data privacy, discrimination and student discipline.
In 2022, United States senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren released the findings from an investigation they opened into the top monitoring companies. The senators’ report recommends these monitoring companies use demographic data to examine the impact of their algorithms on protected classes and that local education agencies track the effects of these tools on marginalized students.