Press "Enter" to skip to content

Schools Are Deploying Massive Digital Surveillance Systems. The Results Are Alarming

Last December, early on a Sunday morning, Amanda Lafrenais tweeted about her cats.

“I would die for you,” the 31-year old comic book artist from Clute, Texas wrote.

To human eyes, the post seems innocuous.

But in an age of heightened fear about mass school shootings, it tripped invisible alarms.

The local Brazosport Independent School District had recently hired a company called Social Sentinel to monitor public posts from all users, including adults, on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. The company’s algorithms flagged Lafrenais’s tweet as a potential threat. Automated alerts were sent to the district’s superintendent, chief of police, director of student services, and director of guidance. All told, nearly 140 such alerts were delivered to Brazosport officials during the first eight months of this school year, according to documents obtained by Education Week.

Among the other “threats” flagged by Social Sentinel:

Tweets about the movie “Shooter,” the “shooting clinic” put on by the Stephen F. Austin State University women’s basketball team, and someone apparently pleased their credit score was “shooting up.”

A common Facebook quiz, posted by the manager of a local vape shop.

A tweet from the executive director of a libertarian think tank, who wrote that a Democratic U.S. senator “endorses murder” because of her support for abortion rights.

And a post by one of the Brazosport district’s own elementary schools, alerting parents that it would be conducting a lockdown drill that morning.

“Please note that it is only a drill,” the school’s post read. “Thank you for your understanding. We will post in the comment section when the drill is over.”

Such is the new reality for America’s schools, which are hastily erecting a massive digital surveillance infrastructure, often with little regard for either its effectiveness or its impact on civil liberties.

Social media monitoring companies track the posts of everyone in the areas surrounding schools, including adults. Other companies scan the private digital content of millions of students using district-issued computers and accounts. Those services are complemented with tip-reporting apps, facial-recognition software, and other new technology systems.

Florida offers a glimpse of where it all may head: Lawmakers there are pushing for a state database that would combine individuals’ educational, criminal justice, and social-service records with their social media data, then share it all with law enforcement.

Across the country, the results of such efforts are already far-reaching.

The new technologies have yielded just a few anecdotal reports of thwarted school violence, the details of which are often difficult to pin down. But they’ve also shone a huge new spotlight on the problems of suicide and self-harm among the nation’s children. And they’ve created a vast new legal and ethical gray area, which harried school administrators are mostly left to navigate on their own.

“It’s similar to post-9/11,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a lawyer with the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school. “There is an understandable instinct to do whatever you can to stop the next horrible thing from happening. But the solution doesn’t solve the problem, and it creates new issues of its own.”

Monitoring Students’ Online Lives

Why the growing push to monitor students’ online lives?

Consider the trail of digital footprints left by Nikolas Cruz, the disturbed teenager accused of killing 17 people and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018.

Before the shooting rampage, Cruz took to Instagram to post pictures of weapons and write that “I wanna f—ing kill people.” He searched the internet using phrases like “is killing people easy” and “good songs to play while killing people.” Cruz used his phone to record videos of himself planning the massacre. And he allegedly used school computers to look up instructions on how to build a nail bomb.

“If you’re responsible for the safety and security of a school, you have to pay attention to the places where harm is being foreshadowed,” said Gary Margolis, the CEO of Social Sentinel, which claims “thousands” of K-12 schools in 30 states are using its service.

CONTINUE @ ED WEEK