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The home page for Gaggle, a software program that scans student activity across digital platforms like email, computer files and online assignments, features a staggering, if unprovable, statistic. âThis past academic year, Gaggle helped districts save 542 students from carrying out an act of suicide,â it reads.
Calculating figures like suicide prevention is a murky science at best (Gaggle emailed to say that the number was âactually 722 students savedâ), but that hasnât stopped digital student monitoring systems like Gaggle, which has roughly five million users, from growing in popularity. In the wake of mass shootings like Parkland, school districts are facing pressure to find new ways to deter violence, and many of them force administrators to make a choice between student safety and privacy.
Their decisions are ushering in a K-12 surveillance state. This spring, Western New Yorkâs Lockport City School District started testing facial recognition technology with âthe capacity to go back and create a map of the movements and associations of any student or teacher.â There have been gunfire-detecting microphones installed in New Mexico schools and playgrounds that require iris scans. A recent ProPublica report explored the deployment of unreliable âaggression detectorâ cameras in places like Queens, New York. The increase is most likely linked to the number of security and surveillance technology vendors courting school district budgets.
âThis technology is being promoted by tech vendors, not educators, and itâs certainly not being promoted by parents,â Monica Bulger, a senior fellow at the Future of Privacy Forumâs Education Privacy Project told me. Despite federal statistics that show schools are among the safest places for children, the public believes that schools are more dangerous than ever. âSchool administrators feel they need to provide a solution. The tech seems to provide a quick, easy fix,â Bulger said. âSchools arenât considering whether it is the best fit; theyâre choosing the fastest one.â
Arguably more troubling than the collection of student data is where that data is stored and who has access to it. As Education Week reported in May, Florida lawmakers are planning to introduce a statewide database âthat would combine individualsâ educational, criminal-justice and social-service records with their social media data, then share it all with law enforcement.â
Such a database is likely to reveal sensitive information like which students were bullied or harassed, because of a protected characteristic like their sexual orientation, according to Amelia Vance, who directs the Education Privacy Project. All this information, once compiled, could be exposed through data breaches, sent to child data brokers or misclassified, which could lead to outing students or wrongly identifying innocent students as threats.
And thereâs no consensus that monitoring every aspect of a studentâs life, both in school and via their devices, is a universal good. Bulger, who has been interviewing families of children between the ages of 9 and 17 on their attitudes toward privacy in schools, argued that students are stressed by constant monitoring, while their parents tend not to know itâs going on. âGenerally, parents feel insecure that they donât understand how their kids are using technology. School is the one place where they feel like somebody is in control and they trust the schools are acting in the childâs best interests,â she added.
Worse yet, the students canât opt out. âItâs a binary choice for the kids,â Bulger said. âA teacher told me years ago, âIf you want to opt out of using the Google education suite, then youâll also need to opt out of fourth grade.ââ
Continuing on this theme, our trip to the archives takes us back to January 1985 to a story about a Supreme Court ruling on student privacy. Itâs a great historical primer that shows, as the archives tend to show, how little our biggest debates change over the years:
âStudents in school as well as out of school are âpersonsâ under our Constitution and are possessed of fundamental rights which the state must respect,â the Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Young people do not, it stated, âshed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.â
The piece shows how this stuff gets thorny quickly. The 1985 case describes how âthe Court ruled for the first time that the Fourth Amendmentâs protection against unreasonable search and seizure applied to schoolchildren.â But thereâs nothing straightforward about the law when it comes to the definition of unreasonable:
ââReasonable suspicionâ in the courts is no more than a hunch, and I donât think this is an appropriate standard when student rights are involved,â said Gerald Lefcourt, a New York lawyer who handles many search-and-seizure cases. âIf school officials take an aggressive approach, studentsâ privacy rights will almost evaporate.â
I suggest reading the whole piece.
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If youâre reading this, you probably already know that youâre being tracked everywhere online to serve up targeted (read: relevant) advertisements. Since this sort of monitoring is baked into the core of web-browsing architecture, thereâs not a lot you can do (you can go âIncognitoâ and clear cookies or use an ad blocker). Which is why I enjoyed this experiment in online civil disobedience from researchers at Mozilla. Itâs called âHey, Advertisers, Track This!â and itâs designed to scramble the brains of the myriad ad trackers that monitor your every move.
The experiment, which you can do for yourself here, allows you to choose from one of four fake user profiles (Hypebeast, Influencer, Doomsday and Filthy Rich). Then it launches 100 (yes, 100) tabs in your browser that are designed to make your browsing behavior look like one of its stereotypical profile types. For example, picking Influencer will launch dozens of tabs with Amazon searches for holistic remedies, pages for meditation apps and other online New Age goodies.
Once the tabs open, you can close out of the window or delete them individually. If itâs successful, the ads that follow you around the internet should change drastically. The hope, according to Mozilla, is to âthrow off brands who want to advertise to a very specific type of person.â
A few days ago I tried this for myself. Before the experiment I was getting a lot of tech-related ads for services like Google Fi and Verizon (there were also, somewhat inexplicably, a lot of ads for what appeared to be baggy hemp and linen clothes for women over 30). I dialed up the âTrack This!â page and chose Doomsday. I let the cascade of prepper tabs wash over me like an early-aughts Alex Jones monologue. In an instant I navigated to a dozen Amazon pages for products like the Emergency Zone Urban Survival 72-Hour Bug Out bag. There were searches for water purification tablets, survivalist tutorials and a few Home Depot links for âoutside equipment.â
True to its word, the banner ads that followed me around the internet changed pretty quickly. Sensible and chic linen garments became tactical camouflage raincoats. The advertising powers that be thought Iâd taken up a sudden interest in Medicare enrollment. The brands had been thrown off!
As the website for the experiment notes, this is more of a stunt than a solution. After all, youâre still seeing ads, just not relevant ones. Still, itâs a stunt that lays bare how the online ad ecosystem works. And if thereâs one revealing truth about the whole thing, itâs how it demonstrates what a brute-force tool ad targeting is. Despite the constant intrusions and collection of reams of browsing and personal data, much of whatâs served up to us via interstitial online ads is semi-relevant at best. The machines may know us, but they donât know us. Yet!
We just saw the first conviction of a murder suspect who was identified using genealogy website data.
Hereâs a great feature on how Amazon is rather quietly building a huge, networked surveillance infrastructure (that weâre all willingly welcoming into our homes).
And hereâs this wild piece: Amazonâs Facial Analysis Program Is Building a Dystopic Future for Trans and Nonbinary People
Just a wee bit more Amazon creepiness: Amazon Is Working on a Device That Can Read Human Emotions
Ha, you thought we were done with Amazon. How cute! How Amazon and the Cops Set Up an Elaborate Sting Operation That Accomplished Nothing