Rise in US study apps leads to concern over racism, LGBTQ rights, privacy

However, the new trend of tracking has raised fears that some of the apps may target minority students, while others have outed LGBTQ students without their consent, many used to instill discipline as much as deliver care.

So Flanagan has parted ways with many of her colleagues and won’t use such apps to monitor her students online.

Children often use smartphones at school.  But how much are they being monitored online?  Photo: Shutterstock.

Children often use smartphones at school. But how much are they being monitored online? Photo: Shutterstock.

He recalled seeing a demonstration of one such program, GoGuardian, in which a teacher showed in real time what a student was doing on his computer. The child was at home, on a day off.

Such scrutiny raised a major red flag for Flanagan.

“I have a school-issued device and I know there’s no expectation of privacy. But I’m a grown man – these kids don’t know that,” he said.

A spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education said that the use of GoGuardian Teacher “is only for teachers to see what is currently on the student’s screen, provide refocusing notifications and limit access to inappropriate content”.

Valued at more than $1 billion, GoGuardian — one of a handful of high-profile apps on the market — now monitors more than 22 million students, including in the New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles public systems.

Globally, the education technology sector is expected to grow by US$133 billion from 2021 to 2026, market researcher Technavio said last year.

Parents expect schools to keep children safe in classrooms or on field trips, and schools also have “a responsibility to keep students safe in digital spaces and on school-issued devices,” GoGuardian said in a statement.

The company says it “gives educators the ability to protect students from harmful or explicit content”.

Today, online surveillance is “just part of the school environment,” said Jamie Gorosh, policy adviser for the Future of Privacy Forum, a watchdog group.

And even as schools move beyond the pandemic, “it doesn’t look like we’re going back,” she said.

Psychological concerns

A key priority for monitoring is keeping students engaged in their academic work, but it also addresses rapidly growing concerns over school violence and children’s mental health, which medical groups in 2021 called a national emergency.

According to federal data released this month, 82 percent of schools now train staff on how to spot mental health problems, up from 60 percent in 2018; 65 percent have confidential threat reporting systems, an increase of 15 percent over the same period.

In a survey last year by the non-profit Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), 89 percent of teachers reported that their schools monitored students’ online activity.

Still, it’s not clear that the software creates safer schools.

Gorosh cited May’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead at a school that had invested heavily in surveillance technology.

Some worry that tracking apps can actively cause harm.

The CDT report found, for example, that while administrators overwhelmingly say the purpose of monitoring software is student safety, “it’s far more commonly used for disciplinary purposes … and we see a discrepancy falling along racial lines,” said Elizabeth Laird, director of CDT’s Equity in Civic Technology program.

The programs’ use of artificial intelligence to scan for keywords has also singled out LGBTQ students without their consent, she said, noting that 29 percent of students who identify as LGBTQ said they or someone they knew had experienced this.

And more than a third of teachers said their schools automatically send alerts to law enforcement outside of school hours.

“The stated purpose is to keep students safe, and here we have set up a system that routinely allows law enforcement to access that information and find reasons for them to go into students’ homes,” Laird said.

'I miss you dad': boy talks to surveillance camera while dad is away at work

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‘I miss you dad’: boy talks to surveillance camera while dad is away at work

‘Prejudiced’

A report by federal lawmakers last year on four companies that make student monitoring software found that none had made an effort to see whether the programs disproportionately targeted marginalized students.

“Students should not be monitored on the same platforms they use for their schooling,” Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, one of the report’s co-authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“As school districts work to incorporate technology into the classroom, we must ensure that children and teens are not caught in a web of targeted advertising or intrusive surveillance of any kind.”

The Ministry of Education has committed to releasing guidelines around the use of artificial intelligence at the beginning of this year.

A spokesman said the agency was “committed to protecting the civil rights of all students”.

Aside from the ethical issues surrounding spying on children, many parents are frustrated by the lack of transparency.

“We need more clarity about whether data is collected, especially sensitive data. You should at least have notice and probably consent,” said Cassie Creswell, head of Illinois Families for Public Schools, an advocacy group.

Creswell, who has a daughter in a Chicago public school, said several parents have been sent alerts about their children’s online searches, despite not being asked or told about the surveillance in the first place.

Another child had repeated warnings not to play a certain game, even though the student played it at home on the family computer, she said.

A student is playing an online game.  Sometimes parents in the US are sent warnings about what their children are watching online, but they didn't even realize they were being monitored.  Photo: via AP

A student is playing an online game. Sometimes parents in the US are sent warnings about what their children are watching online, but they didn’t even realize they were being watched. Photo: via AP

Creswell and others acknowledge that the problems surveillance aims to address—bullying, depression, violence—are real and need to be tackled, but question whether technology is the answer.

“If we’re talking about monitoring self-harm, is that the best way to approach the problem?” Gorosh said.

Pointing to evidence that suggests AI is imperfect at picking up the warning signs, she said increased funding for school counselors could be more narrowly tailored to the problem.

“There are huge concerns,” she said. “But the technology may not be the first step to answering some of these problems.”

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