Welcome to the K-12 Surveillance State – The New York Times

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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. “This past academic year, Gaggle helped districts save 542 students from carrying out an act of suicide,” it reads.

Calculating figures like suicide prevention is a murky science at best (Gaggle emailed to say that the number was “actually 722 students saved”), but that hasn’t 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 York’s Lockport City School District started testing facial recognition technology with “the capacity to go back and create a map of the movements and associations of any student or teacher.” 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 “aggression detector” 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.

“This technology is being promoted by tech vendors, not educators, and it’s certainly not being promoted by parents,” Monica Bulger, a senior fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum’s 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. “School administrators feel they need to provide a solution. The tech seems to provide a quick, easy fix,” Bulger said. “Schools aren’t considering whether it is the best fit; they’re choosing the fastest one.”

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 “that would combine individuals’ educational, criminal-justice and social-service records with their social media data, then share it all with law enforcement.”

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 there’s no consensus that monitoring every aspect of a student’s 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 it’s going on. “Generally, parents feel insecure that they don’t 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 child’s best interests,” she added.

Worse yet, the students can’t opt out. “It’s a binary choice for the kids,” Bulger said. “A teacher told me years ago, ‘If you want to opt out of using the Google education suite, then you’ll also need to opt out of fourth grade.’”

Which is why Vance and Bulger suggest that parents ought to read up on student monitoring in their districts, ask questions and, if necessary, speak out. When it comes to student privacy, parents may be complacent, but the tech companies sure aren’t.

CreditNYT archive

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. It’s a great historical primer that shows, as the archives tend to show, how little our biggest debates change over the years:

“Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution and are possessed of fundamental rights which the state must respect,” the Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Young people do not, it stated, “shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”

The piece shows how this stuff gets thorny quickly. The 1985 case describes how “the Court ruled for the first time that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure applied to schoolchildren.” But there’s nothing straightforward about the law when it comes to the definition of unreasonable:

“‘Reasonable suspicion’ in the courts is no more than a hunch, and I don’t think this is an appropriate standard when student rights are involved,” said Gerald Lefcourt, a New York lawyer who handles many search-and-seizure cases. “If school officials take an aggressive approach, students’ privacy rights will almost evaporate.”

I suggest reading the whole piece.

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If you’re reading this, you probably already know that you’re 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, there’s not a lot you can do (you can go ‘Incognito’ and clear cookies or use an ad blocker). Which is why I enjoyed this experiment in online civil disobedience from researchers at Mozilla. It’s called “Hey, Advertisers, Track This!” and it’s 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 it’s successful, the ads that follow you around the internet should change drastically. The hope, according to Mozilla, is to “throw off brands who want to advertise to a very specific type of person.”

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 “Track This!” 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 “outside equipment.”

One example of my Doomsday ad profile at work.CreditAmazon Screenshot

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 I’d 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, you’re still seeing ads, just not relevant ones. Still, it’s a stunt that lays bare how the online ad ecosystem works. And if there’s one revealing truth about the whole thing, it’s 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 what’s served up to us via interstitial online ads is semi-relevant at best. The machines may know us, but they don’t know us. Yet!

We just saw the first conviction of a murder suspect who was identified using genealogy website data.

Here’s a great feature on how Amazon is rather quietly building a huge, networked surveillance infrastructure (that we’re all willingly welcoming into our homes).

And here’s this wild piece: Amazon’s 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

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Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/02/opinion/surveillance-state-schools.html

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