Crossing a line? California school district hires company to watch students’ social media

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The Internet is full of nightmares for parents and educators worried about safety. And it probably always will be. But does that make it appropriate for a school district to hire professional social media snoops to digitally tail their students’ moves online? 

A school district in suburban Los Angeles thinks the answer is yes. CNN reports that the Glendale, California, school district paid Geo Listening $40,500 to monitor its 14,000 students online. Geo Listening looks over the social media profiles of students who are 13 and over, and compiles daily reports on potential trouble.

“This is the government essentially hiring a contractor to stalk the social media of the kids.” 

The school decided to spend the money on Geo Listening after it contracted the firm to do a more limited monitoring project last year, which resulted in suicide prevention for a student making cry-for-help statements online. Superintendent Richard Sheehan told CNN the prevention was significant because the district had weathered two suicides in recent years. 

Geo Listening uses keyword searches to look for violence, truancy, and drug use, but students haven’t yet been punished based on anything they’ve written on social media. School authorities led an inquiry after a student posted a picture with a gun, but it turned out to be fake, and he was given a warning about the dangers of posting that kind of photo. Sheehan said he would turn students over to the police if they made threats to bring a gun to school. 

This policy isn’t roundly endorsed, however. Privacy critics say it is tantamount to spying on students. Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CNN the Glendale policy “crosses a line” by stalking the social media of children.

“This is the government essentially hiring a contractor to stalk the social media of the kids,” Tien told CNN. “When the government – and public schools are part of the government – engages in any kind of line-crossing and to actually go and gather information about people away from school, that crosses a line.”

While it’s always wise to keep a critical eye on monitoring policies, Geo Listening’s monitoring activities are not entirely invasive, as the company only looks at public social media correspondences. Private Facebook messages or protected tweets fall outside their surveillance umbrella due to restrictions imposed by the students’ privacy settings. Therefore, everything Geo Listening dregs up is already readily available. 

If anything, the social media monitoring could underline the importance of privacy settings to the young people in the Glendale school district.

Geo Listening isn’t the only social monitoring service available for parents and educators who want to keep track of changes in young people’s digital behavior. Bipper’s MobileKids, a social media monitoring tool geared towards parents, also endeavors to monitor and track activity. But the founder, Silje Vallestad, believes there is a fine line between monitoring and spying.

“I don’t want to know what my daughter writes in a text or chat message to a friend. To me that’s private.”

The app’s technology lets parents track which services their children are using, but they cannot see their private messages. Vallestad explains how her dilemma as a parent informs MobileKids.

“To be able to parent in your kids’ digital lives you need to know what questions to ask,” says Vallestad. “And without information about what’s going on it’s impossible to know what to ask. It’s a catch-22.”

Vallestad says she relies on “the combination of dialogue and trust” over direct surveillance of her children. “Spying only fosters distrust and negative emotions,” she says. “So where is my line?”

The line, says Vallestad, only becomes visible by knowing “exactly what services my kids are using, who their contacts are, and how much they are using various services.” With this information, she has a “good bird’s eye view of what’s happening” in her children’s lives. And she can block certain apps if they seem problematic. Her kids’ private communications, however, are off limits.

“I don’t want to know what my daughter writes in a text or chat message to a friend. To me that’s private,” says Vallestad. “… It’s about dialogue and not spying. That’s where the line goes for me. And when starting my company to make kids safer, that’s the type of service I set out to create.” 

Although privacy advocates should continue to look at how both schools and parents track the digital lives of children, both MobileKids and Geo Listening, and similar tools, put up boundaries to keep private communications private while attempting to monitor activity in a way that keeps children safe. If they delve into private messages, then the question of privacy will become more urgent. But as the policy of Glendale schools stands now, it may simply end up identifying more suicidal students, which is hard to view as a bad thing. 

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