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Home Alone? Not If Your Kid Has a School-Issued Laptop

Millions of electronic devices given to students during the pandemic are filled with spyware. But it’s for the good of the student, right?

A recent report conducted by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) should chill those who treasure privacy and believe what goes on in their home should stay there. In a well-documented 22-page research report titled “Online and Observed,” CDT concluded that “students using school-issued devices are subject to more monitoring than their peers using personal devices.” The surveilling software was ostensibly added to the electronic devices to “close the homework gap and address inequities in technology access.” However, the research shows “these tools can also be used in ways that are unduly intrusive.”

That might be the understatement of the year.

Johnny, It’s Time for Dinner

Laptops and Homework Distributed to BPS Students

(Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Let’s say a parent sticks his or her head into a child’s room to announce dinner is ready. If the student is doing homework and the device is on, the parent’s interaction can be captured and available for those in charge to see. But that’s only a tiny slice of the computer’s intrusion capabilities. The technology installed on such devices is quite sophisticated, allowing schools to “launch websites, switch tabs, block sites and view the browsing history of a student.”

Interviews with five local education agencies (LEAs) showed the spyware can collect all manner of data, including email messages. As well, it can monitor students’ “aggressive impulses” and personal behavior. Are they a bully? Do they plan on taking their own life? Are they living in an abusive home?

So much data, so little time.

Such invasions of privacy are viewed by do-gooder LEAs as worth it. “[I]f I can save one student from committing suicide, I feel like that platform is well worth every dime that we paid for [it],” one school administrator told the CDT researchers. Software programs such as Lightspeed, Gaggle, and Bark can be “set up to search for language and online behavior indicating the possibility of violent tendencies, suicidal ideation, drug use, pornography use, or eating disorders,” according to The Guardian.

Teachers and administrators also can track a student’s digital footprint long after school has ended. Two prominent lawsuits in 2010 revealed school officials had the ability to activate the webcam on a student’s laptop whenever desired – meaning that your child could be spied on all day, every day. One legal complaint said the webcam could be accessed “all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons” using the laptop.

That case was finally settled on behalf of the students, and the Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County, PA, had to pay $610,000 – most of which went to attorney’s fees. An FBI investigation was conducted into whether federal wiretap regulations were violated; however, no charges were ever brought against the school system.

Such a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago shows that spying on students is not a new phenomenon. However, the widespread need for at-home learning due to the pandemic meant the use of school-issued electronic devices installed with multiple monitoring software programs increased exponentially.

What this means for students doing homework is that their struggles are not discreet. An overly dramatic email message like “So much homework tonight I could kill myself LOL” can send social services to your front door in the name of “positive intervention.” What if your daughter is striving to overcome an eating disorder, and she is in counseling? With this software, so many difficulties are no longer a private matter.

The teenage years are messy enough without outsiders poking their noses into a child’s innermost battles. The broad reach of monitoring software leaves open so many avenues for abuse of personal information that more lawsuits can be anticipated. But for now, for millions of American children, Big Brother really is watching.

~ Read more from Leesa K. Donner.

Read More From Leesa K. Donner

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