Is Your Monitoring Software Putting Your Students’ Privacy at Risk?

Rob Shavell

As kids go back to school, the last thing they should have to worry about is whether or not their schools are breaching their privacy.

But this school year, students, parents, and educators need to be at least aware of the damage that privacy infringement from monitoring software can cause. This might sound obvious. Unfortunately, it's a lesson that school systems have yet to pick up on.


Digital Student Monitoring Is Not New

All the way back in 2010, a Philadelphia school gave students laptops equipped with webcams that could be remotely activated even outside school hours. And in 2011, the Fairfax County School Board approved indoor video surveillance cameras.

In the decade that followed, the number of schools and universities that invested in student surveillance systems grew exponentially. Whether to maintain discipline, track students’ progress, or keep everyone on-site safe, by 2019, 81% of K-12 campuses had installed cameras. Location tracking, facial recognition technology, “aggression detecting microphones,” social media monitoring technology, and complex social-credit/risk scoring assessments also became more commonplace.

Then, in 2020, the pandemic happened. Driven by the need to enable remote learning, this growing web of technology reached even further into student lives.

Remote classroom management systems, meant to help teachers assess who needs help, ended up giving educators the power to see what students are doing online in real-time—and even close tabs or freeze screens. On the other hand, remote test proctoring services, which made it possible for students to take exams from their homes while also giving educators peace of mind they weren’t cheating, left students wondering how data about their homes and bodies is being used and who it is being shared with.

This constant surveillance is putting students at increased risk of privacy-related threats.


Enter Monitoring Software, Exit Privacy

Many student monitoring services don’t even pretend to guarantee the security of student data. “Your transmission of your data to our site is thus done entirely at your own risk,” warns one remote-test proctoring service in its privacy policy.

At a time when education is one of the most targeted sectors for cybercriminals, poorly secured monitoring tools are a weak point hackers are only too eager to exploit. A cyber attack on student tracking software Illuminate Technology impacted more than a million students in dozens of districts, with stolen data ranging from students’ first and last names and ethnicity to tardiness rates and behaviour incidents.

Rather than just short-term consequences, i.e., personal account security, data breaches like this can result in a generation of students facing privacy-related risks for years to come. Risks that can affect their personal and professional opportunities, like a student with disciplinary problems having trouble getting into college or getting a job.

Even disregarding the potential for breaches, student monitoring tools create a range of privacy risks. A survey by The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) notes how surveillance technology can divulge LGBTQ+ students’ sexual orientation and/or gender identity without their consent. 13 percent of all students said an LGBTQ+ student they know was outed as a result of monitoring technology. This number is even higher among LGBTQ+ students (29 percent).

Surveillance tools also increase the likelihood of students having to interact with law enforcement. This is because when alerts are issued outside school hours, they are frequently responded to by third parties, like law enforcement, not the school itself. Almost 1 in 2 teachers say that students have been contacted by law enforcement as a result of their behaviour being flagged by monitoring technology. Although LGBTQ+ students are disproportionately affected by this, 57% of all students are concerned about their data being shared with law enforcement.


What About Monitoring Benefits?

Despite privacy concerns, most teachers and parents think that the benefits of student surveillance outweigh the potential cons. But do they actually? The survey by CDT mentioned earlier doesn’t seem to think so.

According to the non-profit body, most student monitoring tools are used for disciplinary purposes and rarely produce distinct benefits for students. What’s more, research shows that high-surveillance schools have higher suspension rates and worse math performance. Excessive surveillance may also prevent students from accessing resources they need, like where to find mental health support. Students from minority groups or low-income families are more likely to be harmed by student monitoring technologies.


Student Surveillance Is Not Going Away

Students might have returned to the classroom but monitoring activities have not stopped. Nor will they anytime soon. CDT found that student surveillance is increasing. In 2022, 89 percent of teachers said they monitor students on personal/school-issued devices compared to 84 percent in 2020-2021. Monitoring also often happens outside school hours.

This is at odds with the current data privacy landscape. With consumers growing increasingly concerned about their privacy, Congress is debating passing the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA). Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission is looking to update the regulation of corporate data collection practises. Yet any rules that apply to the private sector are unlikely to apply to educational institutions and the ed-tech industry that serves them.

CDT and other groups have recently asked officials at the Office for Civil Rights to protect students from school surveillance. But if the consumer privacy battle is any indication, it will be years before student privacy is taken seriously.


About the author

Rob Shavell is CEO of Abine / DeleteMe, The Online Privacy Company. Rob has been quoted as a privacy expert in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Telegraph, NPR, ABC, NBC, and Fox. Rob is a vocal proponent of privacy legislation reform, including the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA).

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