Schools Are Safer Than Ever, But That's Not Stopping Schools From Buying Social Media Monitoring Software

from the this-rock-repels-bears dept

Students socialize via the internet more often than not… you know, just like the rest of us do. More and more frequently, they’re being surveilled by their schools. This first came to light a half-decade ago, when documents surfaced showing a California school district had purchased social media monitoring software to keep tabs on its students. Similar stories followed, including one incident where a test publisher admitted to monitoring social media posts of students taking its tests.

In about half the country, this is now standard operating procedure for schools. The Brennan Center for Justice reports schools are purchasing social media monitoring tools with increasing frequency, allowing them to track and surveil students far past the borders of the school grounds.

In an attempt to quantify expenditures on social media monitoring software by school districts, the Brennan Center examined contracts for such software using SmartProcure, a database of government purchase orders. Our review is based on self-reported procurement orders in the database, and thus likely depicts only a portion of school spending on these tools. According to these data, school spending on social media monitoring software has surged in recent years. As the graph below indicates, the database shows 63 school districts across the country purchasing social media monitoring software in 2018, up from just six in 2013 — more than a tenfold increase.

The logic behind the increase in monitoring is flawed. Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased, even if the amount of actual violence hasn’t. Students aren’t more violent than ever, as stats compiled by the DOJ show. Juvenile arrest rates reached their peak in 1996 and have declined 72% since that point.

Despite evidence otherwise, schools are claiming “safety” is the propellant driving these purchases. But there’s no evidence these tools make students safer. But it’s easy for districts to point to historically low levels of student criminal activity as evidence they’re doing something right, even if it has nothing to do with monitoring students as they engage in their off-campus lives.

Anyone who’s failed to mind the generation gap will be unsurprised to learn these tools aren’t the greatest at determining which students may pose a threat to others. As the Brennan Center points out, social media communication is rarely straightforward and the tools aren’t smart enough to sort the harmless from harmful.

Aside from anecdotes promoted by the companies that sell this software, there is no proof that these surveillance tools work. But there are plenty of risks. In any context, social media is ripe for misinterpretation and misuse. But the possibility of misinterpretation is particularly high for middle school and high school students, who are more likely to use slang and quotes from pop culture, and who may be especially motivated to evade adults’ prying eyes. Difficulties in interpretation mean that social media monitoring of students is likely to lead to false positives. Moreover, monitoring programs are particularly bad at correctly understanding languages other than English and even non-standard English, which may be used by minority students.

Obviously, these drawbacks are never highlighted by companies selling surveillance tech to schools. And schools are spending other people’s money, so due diligence is rarely anything more than an afterthought. The more they buy these tools, the more competitors enter the field, offering varying degrees of expertise that all look like they’re top-of-the-line when being pitched to school administrators.

While most of these tools do nothing more than scrap public posts from social media platforms, there are too many downsides to consider this a positive development for students. False positives are a huge concern, especially when schools are relying more and more on law enforcement to handle routine discipline problems. There’s also very little justification for schools to continue tracking students as they engage in their lives away from the campus. While the tools may occasionally surface something of concern, the tradeoff being made completely excludes students from the equation, treating their private lives as little more than a source of mostly-useless data.

There’s no expectation of privacy in public posts, but there is the expectation that school administration won’t be adding itself to conversations taking place off school grounds. These tools subvert that expectation and will likely push more students to take their accounts private, making it that much more difficult for truly concerning social media posts to be seen and reported.

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Comments on “Schools Are Safer Than Ever, But That's Not Stopping Schools From Buying Social Media Monitoring Software”

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38 Comments
Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

The logic isn't...

…flawed.

You’re not looking at it from the "correct" perspective: LIABILITY.

It’s no different than mandatory Sexual Harassment and such classes. It creates a cut-out from liability when, not if, such occurs.

If they did NOT have monitoring software, it would be a de facto admission that they didn’t "try" to stop XYZ actions from occurring.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The logic isn't...

It’s a matter of LIABILITY when bad events occur.

How can there be any liability when social media posts are completely off-campus conversations.

Do you think it’s justified if school admins put security cameras off-campus in places where their students congregate just so they can make sure there is no liability in case some event happens? And where does it end, cameras in their student’s back yards, garages, etc….

That is basically what you’re advocating for here, is that because of liability, the school should be aware of anything and everything that the students are doing off-campus.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 The logic isn't...

Ya, sounds like school perverts!!! Watching young kids who may happen to be in front of that open laptop in their bedroom as they’re getting dressed or undressed. That is so far beyond, I’d sue the school.

What happens OFF-CAMPUS has nothing to do with the school. So long as you are not on school property, you should be off limits. Maybe if Teachers did their jobs and pay attention to the Kids in their class,….

This spying software which is what it is, is way beyond Invasive and creepy and should be banned.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: The logic isn't...

Nailed it in one, that was exactly what came to mind as I read the article. Student safety isn’t the driving motivation for grabbing software like that, the goal is CYOA for the administration by picking up some software they can point to should something go wrong.

It costs the school nothing(they’re spending someone else’s money, and it’s not like the software is spying on their social media activity), but provides a nice scapegoat should things go south, so why wouldn’t they grab it?

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: The logic isn't...

The only "care" the system has for students is that they score high enough on the tests to keep the money rolling in.

All these screeching AC’s have obviously never owned a business or worked in the Legal/Accounting areas. There’s a truly tremendous number of alligators hiding out there just waiting to bite you in the ass, and you do what you can to protect yourself against them.

I pay a retainer to a local attorney, even though I do 90% of my own legal work. Because if something unforseen comes up where I need a lawyer, I’ve already got one. Insurance policy, nothing more. Same goes for the FB monitoring software.

If a landlord in NY gets sued over something that software would have caught if they’d been using it on their tenants, I’ll have to go buy a copy of it as well.

If I don’t I’m "legally negligent", and wide open to a lawsuit.

Same for the schools.

me@me.net says:

Re: The logic isn't...

There’s also the rest of it. Much of Education is actually more about Indoctrination, and this "Big Brother" is watching mentality reinforces that.

Yes one wants to avoid shootings etc, but is this monitoring software on School issues devices or are they insisting it go on pirvate pcs/etc as well, it is obvious over reach.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: The logic isn't...

You’re not looking at it from the "correct" perspective: LIABILITY.

Nonsense. Nothing in current tort law requires a public school to turn into an Orwellian panopticon to avoid legal liability.

Something I’ve never understood every time a story like this pops up is, how does the school or monitoring company know which accounts belong to their students?

Many, if not most, people who use Twitter, for example, do not put their real names on their accounts. If I was a high school student right now, how would my school know that account @BTR1701 belonged to me? My actual name isn’t anywhere on the account. And even if you do want to put your real name on your account, it’s a simple matter to create a secondary or tertiary account to use when you want to say something you don’t want the Big Brothers at school to know about.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Get off my virtual lawn!

Even if they were to hang out, no interaction could reliably be observed. Eyes would automatically follow their phone screens at all times. The occasional laughter will only count as statistical noise, a little blurb in the sea of dumbfoundedness. When nature calls, the teen drone will silently come and go, never letting go of the brick, even as they are putting other bricks in the bowl.

Anonymous Coward says:

Another example of proving the adults are more stupid than the kids when it comes to technology.

The kids in the family were already prepared for this type of invasion, setting up two accounts: one for public and one for private.

Not sure why any adult with an IQ above 2 would think anyone would give up information their private accounts.

Unless they’re threatening them with expulsion now?

Anonymous Coward says:

The logic behind the increase in monitoring is flawed. Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased, even if the amount of actual violence hasn’t. Students aren’t more violent than ever, as stats compiled by the DOJ show.

I’m rather unwilling to concede this point. Claiming that nothing should be done about student safety because the present level of violence is the same as the past level of violence is insufficient. You must also show that the present/past levels of violence are acceptable. I very much don’t accept that present levels of violence are acceptable (or that any levels of violence are acceptable for that matter).

Nor does it make much sense to me to complain about increased fear of school shootings when it’s quite reasonable to suggest that the current level of concern over school shootings should have been the default over the last decade. This same logic would suggest that the current heightened concern over sexual assault is flawed because sexual assault has not increased, or that heightened concern over racial violence in the 60/70s was flawed because racial violence had not increased.

Now, I agree that this particular solution is completely worthless and that schools should not be doing it… but that is because more social media monitoring won’t make students safer and is an extensive violation of privacy (as you stated later) and not because the newly increased concern over student safety is invalid in itself.

Igualmente69 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You must have misread the post. Violence isn’t at the same level as before, it is much lower.
"You must also show that the present/past levels of violence are acceptable. I very much don’t accept that present levels of violence are acceptable (or that any levels of violence are acceptable for that matter)."
And this is asinine, as it would allow increasing governmental power to near-totalitarian levels as long as even one person is subjected to violence. You can always "do more", but that doesn’t mean that you should. Perfect safety will never exist and it should not be a goal as long as humans are humans.
A free society accepts imperfections because the alternative is an unfree society that is (possibly slightly) more perfect.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased

Fear has certainly increased. But overall violence is down not up.
You can cry "Think about the children" but will monitoring Facebook make them safer? Is this money well spent when the school is underfunded, the teachers are underpaid, and basic supplies are rationed and/or donated from the parents?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Teacher’s underpaid is a myth. They are paid quite well because of the UNIONS. In fact, I think they’re paid to much. Kids are getting dumber. Pay should be based on results.

The biggest problem is the huge bureaucracy that is eating up funds that should be going to the students. Doesn’t matter how much money you give schools, it’s never enough. They’ll suck up every last penny but it won’t go to the students or improve the grades.

Wasting their time spying on students like this outside of school on social media is beyond creepy. Money wasted on crap that doesn’t do anything to make schools safer.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Teacher’s underpaid is a myth. They are paid quite well because of the UNIONS. In fact, I think they’re paid to much. Kids are getting dumber. Pay should be based on results.

I get it, you are against paying teachers – because you hate kids.
And firefighters, and unions. Nurses – just playing cards on duty.

Your facts are in question. But I’m sure you are a Fine Person.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hasn’t there’s been software around for protecting children from the dangers of the internet since as long as the internet has been around? Programs like NetNanny and others, widely deployed in schools and public libraries, which were seen as a joke back then by any computer-literate kid. Maybe that’s a reason why they seemed to die out by the early 2000s. Are the new generation of softwares really much different from the old, other than perhaps having a better marketing team?

crade (profile) says:

"Juvenile arrest rates reached their peak in 1996 and have declined 72% since that point"

This does not show what you claim it shows at all..
Arresting less teens does not equate to "schools are safer than ever" whatsoever.
The vast majority of teen arrests will have nothing to do with either school or safety but will be for things like shoplifting at the mall.

How about you look at the number of people killed or injured at school instead which has most definitely not been going down.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Here are a couple recent numbers
https://www.chds.us/ssdb/incidents-by-year/
https://www.chds.us/ssdb/number-killed-by-year/

But I could be wrong I will fully admit I have not done a lot of digging and I don’t really have a horse in the race. I do however take umbrage at claiming a downward trend in teen arrests must mean schools are safer.. It’s a huge leap.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

But I could be wrong I will fully admit I have not done a lot of digging and I don’t really have a horse in the race. I do however take umbrage at claiming a downward trend in teen arrests must mean schools are safer.. It’s a huge leap.

Which would be a fair criticism if that were the only metric used in the article. It isn’t.

Indeed, this is the sentence before the one that brings up arrest statistics:

Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased, even if the amount of actual violence hasn’t.

Your statistics are explicitly related to school shootings. The article does not posit that schools are safer from shootings than ever; it posits that schools are safer from violence than ever. Shootings are a subset of violence. "School shootings have increased" and "school violence has decreased" are not contradictory statements.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased, even if the amount of actual violence hasn’t.

Or as Dara O’Briain noted in one of his standup routines

‘Well so what? You know what I mean? Zombies are at an all-time low level, but the fear of zombies could be incredibly high. Doesn’t mean you have to have government policies to deal with the fear of zombies, it’s ridiculous for Christ’s sake.’

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Fair point. I knew there must be another article that I had missed!
Unfortunately it only covers until 2017. This article says a total of 38 violent deaths occurred at school in 2015-2016..
meanwhile the article I linked shows 56 in 2018 from shootings alone..

As far as I can gather.. fear of school shootings is on the rise (and fear of "other violence is not on the rise) because school shootings are high right now.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re:

From what I understand this doesn’t involve the schools forcing the students to cough up their account info.
The monitoring is done based on the names, locations, keywords and such as scanned off Facebook. Then they build it out – Judy Smith in Oakport is friends with Bobby and Sally, also from Oakport. And they all checked in at the school play.
You should’t be surprised how easy it is to build up a large database of names. Even if half of them are krap – monitoring companies sell Fear not accuracy.

Anonymous Coward says:

I can see now why, when I used run a VPN when I ran my online radio station, why, I used to see a lot of connections from high schools, going to social media sites. Their encrypted connection to my proxy meant that what they doing could not be monitored by network admins.

Those high school students who were using my proxy did not violate the CFAA in any way, so dont get me started on that.

Bypassing network filters does not violate the CFAA, so these students all over the United States who were using my VPN to access social media from school did not break any federal laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Bypassing network filters does not violate the CFAA, so these students all over the United States who were using my VPN to access social media from school did not break any federal laws.

The resident trolls know this, and are absolutely angry this isn’t the case.

This is also why they regularly masturbate to the memory of Aaron Schwartz’s suicide.

cattress (profile) says:

Who they gonna call?

So when some school administrator comes across some threatening or concerning social media, which we have already seen that these administrators have zero ability to determine what sorts of activities are actual cause for concern versus something like sharing an image of a Lego gun, what helpful action are they going to take? Call the police or FBI? The Parkland shooter was all over local and federal law enforcement’s radar, but no money to steal or need to dress up in riot gear and play pretend hero in getting a teenager to professional mental health services he needed. Are these administrators going to try to suspend or expel a troubled teens, further removing him from people and services he may desperately need, or fomenting more deep seated anger? Quite frankly, I think pissing away money on this software should make them more liable, even personally. Kids, all kids, troubled or not, need authentic interaction with compassionate, caring, empathetic adults outside of their own parents. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that other adults actually replace parents by any means. Rather, teachers and school staff who give individual attention and meaningful interaction that makes kids feel valued and like they matter to the community. School administrators need to jump into the mix and get to know the students just as much as the teachers and support staff, instead of just managing the so-called problem kids. Stop sitting in an office looking at reports and coming up with potential liabilities to predicate stripping privacy or fun from childhood.

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