March 3, 2020
San Francisco – Schools across the country are increasingly using technology to spy on students at home, at school, and on social media. Today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched a new Surveillance Self-Defense guide for students and their parents, so they can learn more about how schools are watching them, and how they can fight back.
The surveillance technology currently in use includes software to scan students’ social media posts, cameras with facial recognition and other scanning capabilities, and microphones to “detect aggression.” Schools can even track you on devices that they don’t control: if you have to download a certain kind of security certificate to use the school Internet, they may be monitoring your browser history and messages you send.
“Some administrators argue that they need to use this technology to keep schools safe, yet there is little evidence that it works,” said EFF Activism Project Manager Lindsay Oliver. “Instead, surveillance can make people second-guess everything they do or say. When we are constantly spied on, we censor the way we express ourselves. That’s known as the ‘chilling effect.’ Students need space to experiment and learn without being monitored and recorded by their schools at every turn.”
School discipline disproportionately targets students of color, and it’s reasonable to think that additional, and more comprehensive scrutiny of their lives will only add to that injustice. As a criminologist told Vice, LGBTQ+ students, who tend to look for support online as they explore their orientations and gender identities, “find they’re under so much surveillance that it affects them in ways that shuts them out of those resources. They learn not to look. They learn not to trust online public spaces.”
In the new guide, EFF shows students and concerned parents what kind of technologies to watch for, how they can track you, and what it means for privacy. For example, some schools are tracking students’ locations, ostensibly to automate attendance or track school bus ridership. This monitoring can be conducted through tools ranging from students’ cell phones to ID cards with tracking chips, and it can easily continue when you are off campus. Location information is extraordinarily sensitive—it can reveal who your friends are and what you do when you see them, as well as what kind of medical appointments you might have or what sort of meetings or groups you attend regularly. In some cases, student data is reported to school resource officers or the police, and it can be kept over time, creating a granular history of a student’s actions.
But what can students and concerned parents do? Often, the best solution is to simply not use the systems that schools have set up, if you’re able to, and encourage your friends to do the same. But the new guide also shows students how to gather information on what’s happening and how to talk to adults about it.
“Being under constant surveillance at home and school teaches kids to accept that people they should trust are spying on them—and that’s a lesson that will serve them poorly in later life,” said EFF Associate Director of Research Gennie Gebhart. “If authority figures for youth say constant surveillance is OK, what happens when a romantic partner wants access to every message on their phone? Or an employer wants your social media password? Invasive monitoring isn’t acceptable, no matter who tries to do it, and personal privacy matters.”