Many Digital Divide 'Solutions' Make Privacy And Trust A Luxury Option

from the First-do-no-harm dept

We’ve noted a few times how privacy is slowly but surely becoming a luxury good. Take low-cost cellular phones, for example. They may now be available for dirt cheap, but the devices are among the very first to treat consumer privacy and security as effectively unworthy of consideration at that price point. So at the same time we’re patting ourselves on the back for “bridging the digital divide,” we’re creating a new paradigm whereby privacy and security are something placed out of reach for those who can’t afford it.

A similar scenario is playing out on the borrowed school laptop front. Lower income students who need to borrow a school laptop to do their homework routinely find that bargain comes with some monumental trade offs; namely zero expectation of privacy. Many of the laptops being used by lower-income students come with Securly, student-monitoring software that lets teachers see a student?s laptop screen in real time and even close tabs if they discover a student is “off-task.”

But again, it creates a dichotomy between students with the money for a laptop (innately trusted) and lower income students who are inherently tracked and surveilled:

“Hootman says she and other parents wouldn?t have chosen school-issued devices if they knew the extent of the monitoring. (?I?m lucky that?s an option for us,? she says.) She also worried that when monitoring software automatically closes tabs or otherwise penalizes multitasking, it makes it harder for students to cultivate their own ability to focus and build discipline.”

Teachers and school administrators may be well intentioned, but they’re not thinking particularly large picture. But the creation of this bifurcated treatment of privacy wasn’t lost on the Center for Democracy and Technology, which issued a report last month that found, unsurprisingly, wealthier kids that can afford their own devices are subject to less surveillance and are inherently trusted more overall. Sometimes just by nature of the laptop surveillance systems, but also thanks to school district concerns about liability:

“LEAs (local education agencies) with wealthier student populations reported that their students are more likely to have access to personal devices, which are subject to less monitoring than school-issued devices…LEAs feel compelled to monitor student activity to satisfy perceived legal requirements and protect student safety.”

So in trying to “help” kids, by not thinking broadly enough you’re teaching them that they’re inherently inferior and less deserving of overall trust. Combine that with the overarching problem that less expensive computer and phone hardware is often inherently less private and secure, and it’s not particularly hard to see how efforts to “bridge the digital divide” could make some aspects of it worse if they’re not particularly well thought out.

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Comments on “Many Digital Divide 'Solutions' Make Privacy And Trust A Luxury Option”

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12 Comments
Glenn says:

Securly [is] student-monitoring software that lets teachers see a student’s laptop screen in real time and even close tabs if they discover a student is "off-task."

It looks like the schools and teachers are the ones who’ve gone off-task here. Educating shouldn’t involve Big Brother surveillance… unless, of course, your book of the week is one of several novels about a dystopian society run amuck.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The first I’d ask is a definition of "off task". Does that mean if a student dares to open a different book/website or uses pen & paper to work something out instead of their screen that they’re penalised, or just if the teacher catches them playing on their PS4 in the background instead of listening to their instruction? I haven’t experienced these rules first hand so I can’t really comment with any form of knowledge, but one of these would naturally be more of a school problem than a student problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Does that mean if a student dares to open a different book/website or uses pen & paper to work something out instead of their screen that they’re penalised, or just if the teacher catches them playing on their PS4 in the background instead of listening to their instruction?

As someone who has been in a public school system’s IT department: Its complicated. Normally its the latter, but you can occasionally get that one teacher that looks at anything different as non-conforming and worthy of enhanced scrutiny.

In my district the number of off-taskers using youtube, social media, etc. during class was high during the initial roll out of surveillance tools. (In our case ITALC or as it’s known today Veyon.) After about three months, the number of cases dropped off sharply and was limited towards the known problem students. Essentially, we found that as long as the students think they can get away with it, they will try. We also noticed an increase in assignment completion and retention to the tune of 13% after it’s deployment. Not much, but for those students affected they were asking less questions after class which our teachers took as the "nail in the coffin." That’s not to say all districts will notice similar changes after deploying something like these surveillance programs, but it’s definitely what’s driving adoption.

As for the question of privacy, it’s kind of a moot point in the case of a district owned device. The entire point of "district owned" means that the district owns the device. It’s not the student’s personal equipment. Saying that the student is entitled to same levels of privacy as if it were their own personal equipment is wishful thinking. The district has an interest in protecting their property, and the district is legally bound to ensure that district property is used in an "acceptable" manner. I.e. for the education of the student. All of that taxpayer money has a lot of strings attached, and if a district is found in violation of one of those strings it may owe fines or suddenly be unable to provide services. As such all districts have their policies about what a student can and cannot do with district owned equipment, and those policies override the student’s right to privacy. If a student wants privacy, they can get their own equipment on their own dime. (Or get the taxpayers to agree to give them free tech money no strings attached, but we all know the likelihood of that happening.)

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Thanks for the information!

"The district has an interest in protecting their property, and the district is legally bound to ensure that district property is used in an "acceptable" manner."

Which can be done without violating aspects of a student’s privacy that have nothing to do with who owns the device. Surely, the same expectation of work to be done for class is the same no matter who owns the device, and the level of invasion of privacy is therefore the same.

The school owning the laptop might allow them to invade a student’s privacy, but what about that ownership requires them to do so? Wouldn’t a student who can install Steam and play a game in a random side window be more likely not to do the assigned work on the laptop than the student who does not have those admin privileges anyway?

I can understand admin controls, domain restrictions, remote admin functions, etc. being required to ensure that a student is not misusing school equipment, but not the level of monitoring described in the article. Especially if such things are suddenly not a concern if the child’s family happens to be rich enough to buy their own equipment.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Something something all men are created equal…
Unless they are poor or colored.

Oh we’re protecting them… so you hate the students who are better off/white?
You aren’t protecting them the same as other children.
They fact the parents aren’t demanding the spyware on their kids computers too, perhaps we should dispatch CPS to investigate child neglect.

Or… hear me out…
We remove all of the spyware, and trust all the children the same amount.

Teachers are there to educate the kids, not be the stasi… but only for the poor dark children.

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