Concern over student privacy just took a big brotherly leap forward, from times when locker searches raised a few eyebrows to today's spy-like world of social media monitoring.
At a time when debate continues to boil over how the U.S. government, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the American public strike the appropriate balance between privacy and security, a California school district is igniting similar controversy by investing over $40,000 in a program to monitor what its students do and say on popular social media networks, according to an Aug. 24 report in the Glendale New-Press.
As the back-to-school bells began to ring, Glendale Unified School District announced it had contracted with the social media monitoring service Geo Listening in an effort to catch incidences of cyberbullying, suicidal risks and drug use among the district's students.
Not surprisingly, the move is being met with outcries of privacy invasion and complaints that the school is implementing "big brother" tactics against young people who are already at an age that makes them question whether adults are to be trusted.
Data released Aug. 29 by California's Department of Education show that most Glendale Unified School District schools posted declining Academic Performance Index (API) scores compared with a year ago, raising further questions over whether the district's dollars are being well-placed.
The district conducted a pilot program on social media monitoring in three of its schools last year. Although its stated intentions are to safeguard the student body from harm, it is just as likely the district is looking to safeguard its own coffers from legal action after finding itself sued earlier this year by parents of a 15-year-old Crescenta Valley High School student who jumped to his death on campus.
In the lawsuit, the parents alleged that the district had done little to address bullying, which they claim caused their son to leap from the building in front of fellow students. However, a Los Angeles coroner's spokesperson has stated that several suicide notes found on the body clearly communicated the young man's reasons for taking his life, but made no mention of bullying.
Parents and students should not assume the monitoring program will keep data aggregated and only look for trends. Far from it. Instead, the service analyzes information that individual students post on popular social networks like Twitter, Facebook YouTube and Instagram. It then flags any social media content it "deems to be adverse," and provides schools with a daily report identifying potentially harmful activities or questionable intentions.
The report is said to be sophisticated enough to take into account factors like frequency and severity of posts considered troublesome, which may represent everything from bullying and hate to substance abuse and truancy. With so much subjectivity a part of the model, some students have understandably voiced fears that their freedom of speech to criticize the school or its instructors, even when done in a non-threatening way, will be met with swift punishment and penalties.
Parents and students alike have raised concerns of how a monitoring service, no matter how sophisticated, can adequately understand a young persons intent in making any particular post. Social media by its very nature lends itself to fits of boasting and grandeur, most of which is harmless and taken in stride by fellow users. Whether a service can adequately sift through the chaff to find something truly noteworthy remains to be seen but certainly heightens concerns over the process.
Long-term Data Exposure
The district has deflected public outcry over privacy issues by pointing out that student posts are already public, and therefore privacy has already been surrendered. However, the ability for social network users to restrict who views posts and utilize privacy settings for most content, lessens the district's argument that the use of social media networks is a an open invitation to the public.
The district's privacy argument also does not address the larger concern looming over the use of the data it gathers in the monitoring process. The district has not answered how it will store the student's data nor for how long. No mention has been made to reassure students their data will not be sold or otherwise used. With most adults carrying around a regret or two over something they did as a teen, there is justifiable concern that data could eventually come back to diminish the reputations of students as they mature into adults.
The issue of security versus privacy will continue, from the living room to Main Street and now to school yards. But it is clear that for some school districts, investments of tens of thousands of dollars to keep an eye on students as they tweet and post is much more attractive than the threat of being sued for millions for allegedly turning a blind eye to bullying and other problems.
Teens who were already lamenting that there were too many parents using Facebook are about to have a whole new set of eyes watching--and second-guessing--their every move.