At one October 2018 meeting in Woodbridge, NJ, where the board gave students commendations and presented the current school problems and budget to the parents, a couple of guys stepped up to report about something that completely surprised everyone. They stated that students were so concerned about their privacy that they had to cover their laptop and Smartphone webcams and microphones with tape. Woodbridge just recently joined the GoGuardian, the growing company focused on school observation. And obviously, students were not pleased.
Based on promoting school safety and aiming to stop a mass shooting, companies like the GoGuardian, Securly, Gaggle and Bark sell spy tools that allow school administration, teachers and sometimes parents to check every action students take using school devices. Students are concerned and ask the board directly: how can school guarantee them privacy rights when the GoGuardian control their every step? The board president could not give an answer to this question: he admitted that he did not know enough about GoGuardian to promise anything.
The capabilities of such spy software vary, but usually, they can do such things as:
- Review user`s browsing history and location;
- Monitor social media activity;
- Check keystrokes.
These programs are not limited in power as long as students use school devices behind the school doors or log into school accounts from their personal appliances. The companies producing the programs state that the software helps to keep them away from harmful online content and claim that it has already saved thousands of students from committing suicide or shooting. These claims have not been proved by studies: instead, the researchers say that such tools negatively impact children breaking trust relationships with schools so in case they may need help, students will never ask adults for that.
Numbers and accidents
School administrations are being under intensive pressure trying to protect children and notice early signs of future accidents. Bark home page states that its free spying software protects over 4 million students having prevented 16 potential school shootings and detected over 20 000 self-harm threats online. Their statistics also include five shooting and bomb threats, 135K cases of cyberbullying, 310K instances with drug discussions, 12K cases of suicide intention and 200K students sharing explicit content. Of course, such statistics convince schools and parents at least to try a free version.
The money is mostly made from a $9-per-month version sent to families: a premium account allows more features and covers over 200K children. Although all the companies deny profiting from collected by software students` data, all these numbers look rather a marketing instrument than real statistics. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that compared to the national studies the numbers provided by Bark`s company differ a lot. Nobody held independent research so it makes schools question the consistency and integrity of the companies` data.
Bark`s statistics also differs from its larger competitors. For example, Securly, which covers over 10 million kids states that its AI systems detected a comparatively fewer threat: just 465 that involved potential suicides, violence cases, cyberbullying, and drug-related discussions. Bark was asked what proofs they can provide and its spokeswoman stated that the best proves were the parents` testimonials they received. She also added that the company did not participate in independent research because of the data sharing policy but in fact they did use these data for marketing statistics publishing.
Other companies like GoGuardian do not use their threat detection statistics and make no comments to journalists. One school held an experiment signing up for Bark`s free month service with access to email, Spotify, Twitter, Google services and web browsing history. Unexpectedly it didn`t work in Chrome although it was installed right and during the month the extension didn`t flag even one issue.
Instead, the software flagged 78 issues of sexual content and cyberbullying that came mostly from email news outlets like Washington Post, one email from a catering service with beer order, U.S. news from Syria and Drake lyrics. All this demonstrated the lack of language analysis and made students complain in limited access to legitimate educational resources and other websites.
Software gets even worse results in recognizing African American dialects and disproportionately flags their posts. Some companies use algorithms that spot the words bomb or gun and analyze the content of the message and recent web activity before flagging. The task becomes even more difficult with LGBTQ students who look for positive information and societies on the Internet. Securly is struggling with this problem and promises to work better on improving the algorithms.
There is no research proving that students perform worse when their data are monitored: however, there is also no research that proves the safety and efficiency of surveillance programs. Nevertheless, there are real accidents that make students tap their webcams. For example, one of the students in Pennsylvania was accused of dealing drugs because software made a picture of him with brightly-colored pills in his room. It was done without students` knowledge and some of the taken pictures were very sensitive.
It turned out the drugs were just candies and the district had to pay $610K to compensate students and cover lawyers` fees. Such invasion into children`s privacy was covered by media but schools have to think about the consequences of using spying software. Does it teach students that to be watched on is the norm?