The Glendale School District in California is facing some backlash from the recent news that it has retained the services of Geo Listening to track its students' social media activity. The rationale behind the program is (of course) the students' safety.
After collecting information from students' posts on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, Geo Listening will provide Glendale school officials with a daily report that categorizes posts by their frequency and how they relate to cyber-bullying, harm, hate, despair, substance abuse, vandalism and truancy.
Glendale Unified, which piloted the service at Hoover, Glendale and Crescenta Valley high schools last year, will pay the company $40,500 to monitor posts made by about 13,000 middle school and high school students at eight Glendale schools.
It would appear that the school district knew there would be some backlash, hence its decision to delay this announcement until the beginning of this
school year, rather than "last year," when the program was actually put into place. (The date stated in this article may be incorrect. The founder of Geo Listening's LinkedIn page
says the company formed in January -- unless "last year" means "last school year.") Administration officials are already on the defensive.
Glendale Unified Supt. Dick Sheehan said the service gives the district another opportunity to "go above and beyond" when dealing with students' safety.
A rather overwrought paragraph
"People are always looking to see what we're doing to ensure that their kids are safe. This just gives us another opportunity to ensure the kids are safe at all times," he said.
on the company's About Us page attempts to sell fear and monitoring system at the same time, much as Superintendent Sheehan did in the above paragraph.
Your students are crying for help. We have heard these cries of despair, and for help and attention, loud and clear from students themselves via their public postings on social networks. Many feel as though no one is listening, and they are falling away from societal connections. This trend can be reversed with more timely information that we can provide to the appropriate school staff.
What Geo Listening appears to do is nothing more than aggregate public social media posts linked to either the students or school district. Geo Listening repeatedly points out that it doesn't "monitor email, SMS, MMS, phone calls, voicemails or unlock any privacy setting of a social network user."
Geo Listening is a social media monitoring system that allows school districts to locate and process publicly available social media content. School districts use the Geo Listening Services to access and aggregate publicly available content on the Internet into regular reports and dashboards. Public content is collected and provided to school districts from the following websites:
· YouTube; and
By monitoring only
public posts on social media services, Geo Listening is able to provide the district with reports on 13,000 students. Without having access to a report, it's tough to say exactly what Geo Listening is turning over to the district. Here's what it says it's looking for:
Geo Listening provides social media monitoring services (“Geo Listening Services”) that enable school districts to locate and process publicly available information about their students for the purposes of combating bullying, cyber-bullying, hate and shaming activities, depression, harm and self harm, self hate and suicide, crime, vandalism, substance abuse and truancy.
There are some very broad terms in that list and without more information on how
Geo Listening tracks or aggregates posts that fall into this very wide net, it looks as though the system is apt to produce a lot of false positives.
Then there's the question about how
it searches for offending posts. Does it only run current students through its digital sifter or does it include anyone who lists a Glendale school on their profile? Does this dragnet also capture comments, tweets, etc. from non-students who interact with Glendale students? If a student interacts with a non-student's post that falls afoul of the guidelines, can they be punished? These are just a few of the many questions this monitoring service raises.
How to Opt Out
If you would like to ensure content that you post through a social media platform or profile is not monitored by Geo Listening, you should ensure that your social media posts are non-public. Geo Listening only collects publicly available information. Therefore, if a social media platform includes settings that allow you to designate your posts as private, doing so will ensure your posts will not be collected.
It would seem that stating this openly somewhat defeats the purpose of the program, but it does give Geo Listening a pretty strong defense against privacy violations. Geo Listening, however, seems fairly confident that most students won't "opt out," according to this answer in its FAQ
Most users below the age of 25 do not utilize the available privacy settings because they are seeking to be recognized for their respective posts. They have chosen to post in the public domain in exchange for popularity and a decreasing ability to communicate effectively face to face.
Personally, I feel Geo Listening is underestimating the teens it's monitoring and the little dig it throws in during the last sentence is unseemly. Insulting the people you're spying on is the sort of thing that comes back to haunt you.
Geo Listening doesn't address one of the biggest flaws in its system anywhere in its statements: trolling. Once students realize their public posts are being monitored, they're likely to respond with deliberately objectionable statements in order to trigger a response from the school system. Once this starts happening with any frequency, it will be much harder to separate the legitimate problems from the fake, while also providing legitimate bullies with a handy excuse.
Then there's the fact that the monitoring makes no distinction between posts made at school (where the school should presumably have some sort of say, especially if these are made using school equipment) and those made outside
of school, away from the school's jurisdiction. Some will argue that the type of behavior being monitored crosses both boundaries and therefore should
be the concern of the school. But opening this door will lead to more monitoring of kids' (theoretically) private lives rather than what should actually be under the school's purview.
Also of some concern is Geo Listening's mobile app, which basically turns any phone possessed by a student, parent or school staff member into a "Report" button
Geo Listening also provides a free mobile application to each respective school's parents, students and staff. This mobile application provides each stakeholder the ability to anonymously report incidents that are experienced or witnessed.
While having an easy way to collect anonymous tips on incidents of bullying is a theoretically good idea, in practice it often just becomes another avenue of abuse. The district may have thought it was offloading something it didn't have the time and resources for (monitoring students' social network use 24/7) to a third party, but the exploitable flaws in the system indicate a significant amount of investigative and followup work will be generated -- all of which will have to be handled by school administrators.
If administrators are sluggish in their response to reported issues, it will give the appearance that they only really care about appearing
to do something, rather than actually doing
something. And Geo Listening's rationale ("only public posts") for tracking students off-campus isn't really that much different than the FBI, NSA, et al abusing the Third Party Doctrine
in order to hoover up huge amounts of metadata. Just because it's been created doesn't automatically mean it should be collected.
It's another bad administrative decision based on an impossibility (keeping children safe "all the time"), one that's likely to hurt the school in the long run. Unfortunately, this news has attracted the attention of another California school district
, one which obviously hasn't read the comments attached to the dozens of stories about the monitoring system.
Burbank’s schools chief said she plans to keep an eye on neighboring Glendale Unified, who recently hired a Hermosa Beach-based company to monitor the public social networking accounts of its middle and high school students.
“We do not currently monitor students’ social media sites and we have not yet researched the program that Glendale Unified has implemented, but we will be gathering more information,” Burbank Unified Supt. Jan Britz said in an email Thursday.
No one "keeps an eye" on something like this unless they think it's a good idea, but just need some additional justification or a lower bidder. Officials don't "keep an eye" on ideas they've dismissed out of hand as being "terrible" or "not for us." The expectation of privacy as it pertains to public posts is very limited, but as diminished as it is, it's not completely unwarranted for the student body to feel they should be able to leave campus without the school following it around and reading its posts over its shoulder.
[More excellent posts on the same subject at Free Range Kids