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Protect yourself from school surveillance tech

The reach of “Big Brother” gets wider seemingly every day, and students in schools are the latest target. 

Educational institutions are now using technology to protect students from cyberbullying, violence, and other online risks, and the popularity of surveillance tech is growing. But those who’ve spent time on a school campus may have observed that students today must watch their own digital backs, too. Many schools implement surveillance tech that may arguably cross the line, shifting from mere protection to an invasion of privacy. 

Wired reports that some schools use monitoring software that tracks students’ online searches. Software also scans students’ emails. In some cases, this software even alerts law enforcement of alleged risks. And it’s not just elementary and high school students that face this surveillance. The Dallas Morning News recently discovered that colleges have been using an AI social media monitoring tool to monitor student protesters. 

The U.S. federal government has caught wind of this issue. The White House recently urged schools to abstain from continuously monitoring students if digital monitoring tools are likely to infringe on students’ rights. Yahoo! News reports White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s official position is that AI-based tools, in education and beyond, should be secure and effective, avoid discrimination, ensure reasonable privacy protections, be open about their actions, and offer the option of having decisions reviewed by a human. 

Your data is at stake

The technology used by schools to spy on students can compromise more than just the answers to last week’s math test. When a student logs onto a school Wi-Fi network from a shared family device, non-academic information including medical records, bank information, or anything else transmitted to or from that device can easily be seen. 

There are many legal gray areas regarding what a school must disclose about data privacy practices and monitoring. Keep in mind that the big tech companies developing the school surveillance tools may also have access to your data. Big tech might just use the data for product development, but they might also sell it to advertisers to target you online. 

“The point of all this data collection is to influence your behavior, whether it’s getting you to buy a product, promoting compulsive behavior, or even pushing an ideology,” Casey Oppenheim, CEO of Disconnect, told Gizmodo. “When you put that in the context of kids, there’s something about it that’s really sinister.”

Does surveillance tech in schools work?

While safeguarding young learners seems like a noble cause, there is little evidence to suggest that surveillance can effectively protect students. In fact, there have been multiple reports of school surveillance tech causing harm. Monitoring software has publicly exposed students’ sexual orientation without their consent. Students from low-income, Black, and Hispanic backgrounds are also disproportionately subject to surveillance and punishment.

Some surveillance is required by law. All schools must use some form of web filtering in the United States to prevent students from accessing obscene or harmful material online, according to 2020’s Children’s Internet Protection Act

But schools are far from required to use sophisticated technologies like Gaggle that scan the content of students’ emails and notify the police. Some schools pay Gaggle thousands per year to monitor students’ class work and communications. Student (and sometimes faculty) emails are monitored in real-time, and if the system flags any emails, it then prevents messages from reaching their intended recipients. Files and documents are reviewed later after the message is blocked. Suicide, drunk, gay, and lesbian are just a few of the banned words that can cause a message to fall into a Gaggle black hole. 

Protecting your privacy at school

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to protect your and your family’s privacy from spying school IT departments.

Install privacy-friendly apps

Apps are the first line of defense when it comes to digital privacy. Fortunately, many apps on the market protect teens’ data and keep their communications private. DuckDuckGo offers mobile apps and browser extensions that block hidden trackers from school networks and beyond.

The Do Not Track Kids app, from security firm Disconnect, blocks trackers across your entire device while teaching kids lessons about privacy in the process. 

Limit the use of school-owned devices

School-issued devices like laptops and tablets can be great tools for learning, but they also leave a trail. While using a school-owned device is a requirement for some activities, take caution never to look up anything online that isn’t related to an assignment. Clicking on an unknown website or reading a message board with a violent comment could trigger a red flag to surveillance apps. 

Avoid talking about school on social media

Some schools have reportedly paid for social media surveillance services to monitor their students online. While the school’s intent may be to detect threats of violence and other negative chatter, it’s challenging to know what might trigger a response. So keep your school chatter in private chats, and be careful about engaging in heated conversations about your school online. 

The ongoing fight for privacy 

It’s troubling to know that many students, required by law to attend school, are also subjected to mandatory surveillance with questionable motives. The fight for privacy will surely continue as technology makes tracking our locations, messages, and actions easier than ever. So as school surveillance tech reaches even wider, it’s crucial to take steps to protect the privacy of your family’s valuable data. 

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Rodney Brazil avatar

Rodney Brazil

Rodney is the Content Marketing Editor for EasyWP, and a writer at Namecheap. As an SEO specialist, he strives to create entertaining and valuable publications for all internet creators. Offline, he enjoys running, acting, and pizza. More articles written by Rodney.

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