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New Research Probes Surveillance of Students’ Online Activities

K-12 schools gave students laptops and tablets to let them learn virtually. But many schools also closely track students’ activities on the devices — and advocacy groups are raising the call for less invasive monitoring.

A student participating in an online class.
Providing students with school-owned devices has helped them learn virtually; it also may subject them to tight scrutiny whenever they use the tools to go online.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), an organization that advocates on technology policy, is raising concerns about how K-12 school systems track students’ online behaviors. It released new research today that examines the privacy risks of such practices and published a letter urging federal action. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations also signed the letter.

The topic takes on added weight because children in lower-income communities are likely to be subjected to greater surveillance than their wealthier peers. That’s because lower-income students are more likely to rely on school-provided devices, which school systems tend to surveil more heavily than they do activities on personal devices, per CDT findings.

Schools offering remote and hybrid lessons might use monitoring software that lets them watch students’ screens in real time, scan their emails, review their browsing histories and otherwise closely observe online activities, CDT stated in a new report. Children using personal devices might only be monitored when logged into school portals, for example, whereas those using school-provided laptops and tablets may have all activities on the devices surveilled, including those taking place outside of school hours or portals.

CDT recently released findings from a June 2021 online survey that found 81 percent of K-12 teacher respondents reporting their school uses some kind of monitoring software. Thirty percent of this group said that the tracking is always on.

The goals behind such surveillance can include checking that students are engaging with virtual lessons, watching for signs that might indicate mental health emergencies — such as children contemplating suicide — and monitoring to catch potential external hackers and malicious account takeovers, according to local school district representatives who spoke with CDT between April and June 2021.

In those conversations, CDT interviewed nine personnel from five different local education agencies to learn how they used and viewed the tools. Interviewees came from various roles, including IT directors and district administrators, and the school systems reflected different enrollment sizes, poverty rates and racial makeups.

Despite the potential advantages, there are also risks to closely tracking students.

Survey respondents said intrusive surveillance methods risk uncovering private personal information — potentially outing LGBTQ students — and that software might misunderstand the context of student communications and then trigger unnecessary or overblown disciplinary actions, such as contacting the police.

“There is a very fine line in determining in a student communication what they mean by, ‘I am going to kill someone,’ for example,’” said a participant quoted in the report.

CDT’s June survey polled 1,001 teachers of grades three through 10, 1,663 parents of K-12 students and 490 students from grades nine through 12. It found 51 percent of parents and 47 percent of teachers were concerned about “unintended consequences” such as revealing students’ gender identities or sexual orientations. Sixty-one percent of parents and 57 percent of teachers worried about negative effects on students if the information picked up by the monitoring was presented out of context or used for discipline.

Even so, CDT’s survey found 66 percent of teachers and 62 percent of parents saying “the benefits of student activity monitoring outweigh concerns about student privacy.”

The survey findings also suggested that students who are aware that they are being monitored may avoid expressing their genuine thoughts and ideas — a statement that 58 percent of student respondents said they agreed with. This can have a silencing effect on students’ political organizing and discourage them from discussing personal matters like mental health, CDT states.

Some interviewed school representatives seemed to expect this silencing effect, but draw a different conclusion. Rather than avoid tracking children, an interviewee told CDT that they instead tried to keep the depth of their monitoring obscured by avoiding awareness campaigns to the student body. This was due to fear that the students would learn to avoid the tracking or would shift their conversations about sensitive topics elsewhere, defeating school efforts to detect discussions that could reveal intentions to self harm, for example.

Interviewees said that their surveillance activities are in part spurred by the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). This legislation obligates schools that receive federally provided E-rate discounts for funding broadband services to take steps to safeguard children online, including “monitoring online activities of minors.” Several school representatives told CDT they believed their tracking efforts upheld this provision.

CDT states, however, that the legislation “does not require the tracking of Internet use by minors or adults,” and CDT is pushing for schools to therefore fulfill CIPA in a less intrusive manner.

“Schools may limit the data they obtain by collecting only aggregate information whenever possible and minimizing where and when monitoring is occurring, such as by monitoring aggregate traffic on the school network, rather than over individual devices,” the organization wrote in an open letter to Congress.

That letter urged Congressional members to either update the language of CIPA to specify that detailed tracking is not required and instead call for the minimum necessary data collection, or to have the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issue a clarification.

“CIPA does not require broad, invasive, and constant surveillance of students’ lives online,” the letter states.

The letter drew signatures from the ACLU, the Center for Learner Equity, Getting Smart, Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership, InnovateEDU, Next Century Cities, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association.