Despathy: Digital dystopia on the rise

In 2018, the state of Vermont approved funding $4 million to enhance security in schools. These measures included door locking mechanisms, public address systems for emergency communication, security cameras and window shading.

For years now, many Vermont schools have used surveillance cameras outside of their buildings to help prevent vandalism. On the whole this is standard practice and as reported by many schools has successfully minimized vandalism.

However, in the past decade many Vermont schools have added video surveillance of students inside schools and on buses. This move has become more controversial and discussion around privacy invasion, infringement of civil liberties and harm from these measures has surfaced in communities and school board meetings.

The Newtown Connecticut school shooting in 2012 prompted many Vermont schools to revisit their safety policy and vote in favor of the use of video cameras inside schools. For example, at the Harwood school board meeting on October 16, 2013, it was decided that eight cameras in the hallways would record during the school day in addition to recently purchased cameras to be used on school buses. Waterbury school board member David Goodman voted against this proposal stating, “Our students and staff should be welcomed here as learners and teachers in an environment of trust.” Goodman requested an open discussion with the community and students and voiced concerns with decisions that turned all students into suspects. Head of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at the time, Allen Gilbert attended and shared that this decision is “sending messages to get used to a world where you are going to be watched all the time.”

More recently in October, 2022, the St. Johnsbury, Vermont middle school installed a total of 51 security cameras using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. The school installed 15 additional outside cameras and 36 cameras inside the school.

All schools implementing these measures have offered the comfort of strict guidelines that limit the review of video by approved persons when there has been an incident. Typically video is erased after 30 days. In response, ACLU Gilbert noted that this was the same argument that the National Security Agency used to justify the collection of private phone calls by Americans .

On a whole other level, schools across the nation are implementing invasive EdTech surveillance technology such as facial and iris recognition, fingerprint scanners, artificial intelligence student monitoring programs and third party data storage, all falsely marketed to keep children safe.

In the courts, battles are raging as states attempt to ban controversial surveillance technology running rampant in schools and threatening the privacy and civil liberties of students. In response, the ACLU recently released a publication entitled, Digital Dystopia: The Danger in Buying What the EdTech Surveillance Industry is Selling.

According to the executive summary within the report,

“Over the last two decades, a segment of the educational technology (EdTech) sector that markets student surveillance products to schools—the EdTech Surveillance industry– has grown into a 3.1 billion a year economic juggernaut with a projected 8% annual growth rate. The EdTech surveillance industry accomplished that feat by playing on school district’s fears of school shootings, student self-harm and suicides, and bullying—marketing them as common ever present threats.”

This report aims to provide decision makers with an in-depth analysis of the nefarious behaviors of the EdTech industry. In reality, EdTech services are not delivering benefit and are instead bringing harm to children and violating civil liberties. Included in this report are recommendations for model legislation and action steps to provide protections to students from the profit hungry, predatory EdTech surveillance industry.

The ACLU prioritized this research because school districts are making safety decisions based on the information and manipulated data provided by the same companies intending to sell schools their surveillance products. This report concludes that the EdTech surveillance industry and NOT the students will be beneficiaries with this technology, specifically stating,

“The EdTech Surveillance industry is focused, first and foremost, on making money, not on student safety—a fact school districts would be well advised to remember.”

EdTech surveillance technologies include: surveillance cameras, facial recognition, access control which combines video and facial recognition to screen visitors to schools, behavior detection that utilizes artificial intelligence to watch, analyze and predict behaviors of students that can be reported upon, social media screening, student communication and online monitoring tools, weapon detection, remote video monitoring which uses video cameras on student computers to check compliance and behaviors and fingerprint and iris scanners.

As is evident, The ACLU report found that EdTech Surveillance Undermines Privacy:

“No civil liberty is more directly threatened by student surveillance than the right to privacy. While today’s students may increasingly feel like they live in a society where privacy is more of an aspirational goal than a reality, the truth is that privacy is as important as ever, although it requires more work than ever to protect it. Although privacy is properly framed as a right in and of itself, it is perhaps more importantly viewed as an essential gateway to other civil rights and liberties.”

In addition to intense surveillance and breach of privacy, this technology gathers infinite amounts of biometric, mental, social, emotional and behavioral data that is a highly profitable commodity. In addition to revenue from the sale of surveillance technologies and their apps, dashboards and analysis programs, EdTech companies also profit on the copious amounts of student data which can be manipulated, modeled and sold on markets.

This data can then predict scenarios that demand “interventions” to “fix and prevent” hypothetical situations. This provides an opportunity for investors to finance a “solution” via social impact investing creating yet another revenue stream for predatory companies. If they can ‘prove’ their intervention worked, these investors will receive a return on investment. The education space and student data bring big bucks to investors often via ‘philanthropic’ foundations.

EdTech’s Propaganda Machine, Documented Harm and Student Experiences

Through significant funding sources and political influence, the EdTech industry has been able to completely control the narrative related to their products. EdTech provides schools with propagandized material that claims to keep students safe despite the fact that these claims lack “independent, unbiased, substantiating evidence.”

The ACLU found that the EdTech surveillance industry has severely prevented any discussion of the harms experienced by students exposed to these surveillance products. Noted harms include:

Teaching students the wrong lessons about issues like authenticity, risk taking, and the right to live free from surveillance, Undermining their privacy, Eroding student trust in teachers, school staff and administrators, Inhibiting student’s ability to engage in self help and Increasing student fear and criminalizing youth

The ACLU worked with 502 students between the ages of 14-18 in order to document students’ experiences and concerns. These ranged from “feeling watched all the time” and questioning how their information was used and if it was shared with law enforcement, sold for profit or would be used against them in the future.

One student noted, “Some things are meant to be personal and my inbox should be one of those.”

Another shared, “I feel like this school has my fingerprints on file, they have my face, just like back off, just give me room to breathe.”

Research indicates that EdTech surveillance technologies exert greater intrusion and violation on low income and marginalized students and communities. Surveillance technologies and software that monitor content, utilize remote video and audio access tools can be downloaded on the computers. Many low-income students borrow computers from the school and are thus required to give up privacy rights in order to receive an education currently dependent on these technologies.

Funding, False Promises, and Protections-

Using the need for school safety to market their products, EdTech lobbyists have recently secured over $300 million dollars in federal funding. This money has allowed the EdTech industry to essentially give their products away to schools. Due to fear stoked by the industry themselves, many schools are taking the bait and making false promises on the ability of surveillance technologies to keep their schools safe. The industry also offers schools resources and instruction on how to access available funds, including ESSER funding.

There are real safety concerns that surface because of shooting incidents, behavioral issues and threats, the ACLU report shared alternatives to these surveillance technologies that compromise civil liberties and bring harm. All emphasized fostering an environment that promotes trust, respect and belonging. Education that helps students handle stress and feel good about themselves was high on the list. EdTech surveillance offers the exact opposite and interferes with schools choosing beneficial interventions that actually work to support and keep students safe. Seeking alternatives to EdTech surveillance in Vermont schools will be paramount as these are marketed as convenient, affordable school safety measures.

Several states are attempting to enact legislation to provide protections for students. In 2022, Minnesota passed the Student Data Privacy Act which prohibits schools from using school laptops and tablets to monitor students and families. In September 2023, New York was the first state to ban facial recognition in schools. New Jersey is currently in battle and others are attempting to provide protections as EdTech surveillance technologies and biometric data collection services are unleashed in schools.

.As the ACLU report noted, “Teaching children to fear risk-taking, acting upon their own values and instincts, and developing into a person that is uniquely their own has no place in a constitutional democracy that is grounded in civil rights and liberties like the United States. Instead of relying on surveillance to protect students, it is becoming increasingly important for our schools to protect our students from surveillance.”

Categories: Commentary

4 replies »

  1. A camera can record a crazed person shooting kids, one good guy with a gun can eliminate the gunman immediately, all at a significantly reduced cost to the school’s budget.

  2. AI-mind is the goal.
    AI thinks: Humans: bad.
    And AI is discharging the policies and programs that comply with that underlying premise in the UN Agenda 2030-45 — after the IPCC 2014 report that named ‘humans’ as the enemy of the planet.
    Then handed it over to AI to solve.
    Who do you think will win this silent war?
    Not us stoopid messy organic self-thinking humans you can be sure…