Do schools have the right to spy or monitor students when they are not at school?
That’s the question a number of students and parents in the Glendale Unified School District in Southern California.
The school district tried a pilot program this past spring where they paid Geo Listening $5,000 to monitor the social media sites of students at three high schools and one middle school. District administrators say their goal is to monitor for any signs of bullying, drug use, truancy, violence and suicide.
Chris Frydrych, CEO of Geo Listening said the pilot trial was successful as they found one student that was talking about committing suicide and was able to notify authorities who were then able to intervene. Richard Sheehan, Superintendent of the district said saving that one life was significant, after the suicide of two students over the past couple years. Sheehan said:
“We were able to save a life. It’s just another avenue to open up a dialogue with parents about safety.”
When the new school year started, the district contracted with Geo Listening to monitor the social media postings of every high school and middle school student in the school district. At a time when many school districts are strapped for money, the Glendale Unified School District is paying Geo Listening $40,500 to spy on their 14,000 students.
However, the social media spying can go too far. In another incident, a student posted a photo of a gun. School officials were notified and they immediately investigated the student and the posting. They discovered the gun was fake, but then they claimed:
“We had to educate the student on the dangers” of posting such photos, Sheehan said. “He was a good kid. … It had a good ending.”
This causes me concern because what if the student enjoyed hunting or target shooting and had posted a photo of a real gun that he was proud of? The message being sent by the school district is that if any of their students enjoy a hobby or activity that does not fit in with the personal views of district officials, like owning or possessing a firearm, the school will get involved. A student’s private life is no longer private or their own.
Frydrych defends his firm’s program of spying on student’s social media sites by saying:
“Parents and school district personnel — they are not able to effectively listen to the conversation where it’s happening now. The notion about talking in class is about as old-fashioned as a Studebaker, no offense to the makers of the car.
“When was the last time you sent a kid to the principal’s office for talking in class too much? I just don’t think it happens too much. So what we kept seeing is the chasm keeps building between how students communicate and the ability to tell adults about what’s going on in their lives. I thought we could bridge that gap.”
If spying on students’ social media isn’t bad enough, Geo Listening is coming out with a smartphone app to help monitor what students are saying and doing. The app will allow anyone to anonymously report to school officials anything that could be considered a conduct violation. But what will stop one student from making a false accusation against another student, especially if it is done anonymously?
Electronic Frontier Foundation disagrees with the Glendale school district’s spying on students. The non-profit firm fights against such invasion of privacy issues like what’s happening to these students. According to their website:
“From the Internet to the iPod, technologies are transforming our society and empowering us as speakers, citizens, creators, and consumers. When our freedoms in the networked world come under attack, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the first line of defense. EFF broke new ground when it was founded in 1990—well before the Internet was on most people’s radar—and continues to confront cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights today. From the beginning, EFF has championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights.”
“Blending the expertise of lawyers, policy analysts, activists, and technologists, EFF achieves significant victories on behalf of consumers and the general public. EFF fights for freedom primarily in the courts, bringing and defending lawsuits even when that means taking on the US government or large corporations. By mobilizing more than 140,000 concerned citizens through our Action Center, EFF beats back bad legislation. In addition to advising policymakers, EFF educates the press and public.”
Lee Tien, Senior Staff Attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation commented about the situation in Glendale and their use of Geo Listening, saying:
“This is the government essentially hiring a contractor to stalk the social media of the kids.”
“When the government — and public schools are part of the government — engages in any kind of line-crossing and to actually go and gather information about people away from school, that crosses a line,”
“People say that’s not private: It’s public on Facebook. I say that’s just semantics. The question is what is the school doing? It’s not stumbling into students — like a teacher running across a student on the street. This is the school sending someone to watch them.”
I completely agree with Tien that schools are crossing the line when they decide to spy on students away from school. Schools are patterning themselves after the federal government and believe they have the right to spy on their students whether at school or at home or anywhere. Geo Listening is the school’s version of the NSA. The school’s jurisdiction should end when a student leaves the campus at the end of the school day. They should have no right to monitor what students do on their own time, but I guess in today’s electronic age, nothing is private or sacred anymore. Welcome to George Orwell’s Big Brother world.