Surveillance of students via laptops may do more harm than good
Ever since the start of the pandemic, more and more public school students are using laptops, tablets or similar devices issued by their schools.
The percentage of teachers who reported their schools had provided their students with such devices doubled from 43% before the pandemic to 86% during the pandemic, a September 2021 report shows.
In one sense, it might be tempting to celebrate how schools are doing more to keep their students digitally connected during the pandemic. The problem is, schools are not just providing kids with computers to keep up with their schoolwork. Instead – in a trend that could easily be described as Orwellian – the vast majority of schools are also using those devices to keep tabs on what students are doing in their personal lives.
Indeed, 80% of teachers and 77% of high school students reported that their schools had installed artificial intelligence-based surveillance software on these devices to monitor students’ online activities and what is stored in the computer.
This student surveillance is taking place – at taxpayer expense – in cities and school communities throughout the United States.
In some cases, these surveillance programs have flagged students discussing music deemed suspicious and even students talking about the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Harm to students
When students know they are being monitored, they are less likely to share true thoughts online and are more careful about what they search. This can discourage vulnerable groups, such as students with mental health issues, from getting needed services.
The situation is worsened by the fact that Black and Hispanic students rely more on school devices than their white peers do. This in turn makes minority students more likely to be monitored and exposes them to greater risk of some sort of intervention.
Monitoring of student behavior often extends beyond schoolwork and normal school hours. A privacy expert explains the harmful effects.
Finally, personal information of students that is stored by the vendors is susceptible to breaches. In July 2020, criminals stole 444,000 students’ personal data – including names, email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers and passwords – by hacking online proctoring service ProctorU. This data was then leaked online.
Schools would do well to look more closely at the harm being caused by their surveillance of students and to question whether they actually make students more safe – or less.