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Education officials urged to curb student snoopware

Or just see it as preparing them for the future

What with American students increasingly subject to surveillance software, 15 advocacy groups want the US Department of Education to set monitoring policies that are consistent with civil rights laws.

By surveillance software, we mean programs typically running on students' laptops and PCs that allow teachers and other staff to view their screens in real-time, monitor search and web browsing histories, read their documents, and send messages – even close browser tabs – if the kids aren't paying attention or being distracted by the internet.

There are also tools for monitoring those taking online tests to ensure no one's cheating. These applications are prevalent, especially in these times of remote learning, and can be problematic.

In a letter [PDF] sent to the department's Office for Civil Rights on Tuesday, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) and other groups urged officials to formulate rules to protect students from student monitoring software, which they claim is particularly harmful to LGBTQI+ students, students of color, and students with disabilities.

Student activity monitoring software undermines students' civil rights, say the letter's signatories, a group that in addition to the CDT includes the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Library Association, among others.

"Such software, which monitors students’ most sensitive online activity, culminating in disciplinary actions, 'outing,' and interactions with law enforcement, is often used in ways that discriminate against protected groups of students," the letter says.

Moreover, the groups are concerned that discriminatory policies being advanced on a state level that target LGBTQI+ students – by requiring school's to disclose students' gender identity or sexual orientation and which seek to limit access to literature and other resources related to race and gender/sexual orientation – will be made easier through the availability of student monitoring mechanisms.

The advocacy groups argue that the Department of Education should issue a policy statement to curb the harms of monitoring software to reflect the civil rights protections contained within Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Not just about software

The CDT describes potential harms in a report [PDF] issued on Wednesday. The report, based on interviews with parents, teachers, and students, observes that 89 percent of teachers say their schools are using student monitoring software, five percentage points more than last year.

"We’ve found that nearly every school in the country is giving devices to students – and monitoring is hurting them,” said CDT President and CEO Alexandra Reeve Givens in a statement.

"Our data shows that nearly half of teachers say they know of at least one student who has been contacted by law enforcement as a result of student activity monitoring. When you combine the resurgence of violence in schools with the mental health crisis among kids, schools are surveilling students’ activities more than ever. But these efforts to make students safer more often result in disciplining students instead."

Schools employ surveillance software in an effort to comply with perceived legal obligations and to keep students safe, the report says. But that's not really how the software is used. Some 70 percent of teachers surveyed say surveillance systems are used for disciplinary action, compared to 47 percent who say the software is used for self-harm intervention, or 45 percent who report monitoring being used for preventing violence.

Harms arising from the use of software oversight include: about half of students, or 60 percent where disabilities and learning differences are involved, say they're not comfortable expressing themselves when monitored; 44 percent of teachers say monitoring, some of which happens outside of school hours, has led students to be contacted by law enforcement; and 13 percent of students report that they or someone they know has had their sexual orientation and/or gender identity disclosed non-consensually as a result of student monitoring.

These problems are particularly acute among disadvantaged students who are more likely to rely on school-issued devices that come with monitoring software than students in households that can afford unmonitored computers.

Furthermore, the report finds that teachers bear responsibility for overseeing students but lack training in the issues raised by activity monitoring, and other stakeholders like students and parents often don't understand how monitoring software works.

The digital watchdog

Student surveillance software has elicited controversy as schools, faced with the need to implement remote learning programs in response to the COVID pandemic, have moved to adopt proctoring technology.

Educators have not necessarily welcomed the transition. Two years ago, Ian Linkletter, a learning technology specialist at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada tweeted links to unlisted but publicly accessible YouTube videos from Proctorio, a maker of proctoring software. He did so, he said, because he was concerned about the ethical and privacy implications of the company's student monitoring software.

In response Proctorio sued Linkletter alleging copyright infringement, breach of confidentiality, and unlawful circumvention of technological measures. The lawsuit was condemned by advocacy groups at the time as an attempt to suppress Linkletter's right to free speech.

Last month, the judge hearing the case partially dismissed Proctorio's claims, and Linkletter's legal team filed an appeal to have the remaining charges tossed.

In March, the EFF helped Miami University computer engineering student Erik Johnson settle a lawsuit brought against Proctorio for bad faith use of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to stifle criticism of the company.

"Proctoring apps like Proctorio’s are privacy-invasive software that 'watches' students using tools like face detection for supposed signs of cheating as they take tests or complete schoolwork," the EFF said at the time. "Their use skyrocketed during the pandemic, leading privacy advocates and students to protest this new kind of surveillance."

The CDT report concludes that educators "should pursue alternatives that do not require monitoring students online." ®

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