Glendale schools must define limits of surveillance

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Author: Malcolm MacLeod

The question of online surveillance has been fresh in American minds since May when the Edward Snowden whistle-blowing scandal forced many to consider whether national security is worth relinquishing the right to privacy. Last week, a striking revelation from the Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) brought these issues to the forefront once more when they announced that the district will be openly surveying its students’ online activity, searching for keywords and indicators on social media with the intention of taking preemptive action in cases of severe bullying, violence and self-harm. The parameters of this surveillance and its potential accompanying punitive components have not been clearly communicated to students, putting the GUSD’s program in dubious ethical territory.

The GUSD began implementing this practice last spring in a trial run with surveillance company Geo Listening, who they hired for $40,500 to search for troublesome content in the tweets and status updates of approximately 14,000 middle and high school students whose privacy and right to free speech are being jeopardized by this controversial program.

The LA Times reported that the GUSD initiated this surveillance program in response to recent cyber-bullying and a number of student suicides in which social networking was used by the victims as a cry for help.

Along with bullying and student suicides, Geo Listening will also be looking for posts referring to drug use and sales, potential gun violence, hazing and sexual harassment. However, monitoring this vast array of potential red flags will require Geo Listening to delve into students’ lives beyond the confines of the district’s academic institutions, bringing to light questions of the jurisdiction of the company and school administrators.

The GUSD has displayed its commitment to keeping students safe with these measures, which is an unquestionably noble pursuit from any point of view. However, the school district and its administrators have failed to adequately inform students, their parents and the media to the extent that students should expect to be observed, and what consequences those accused of suspicious online activity might face.

Bewildered by the negligence of local administrators who have failed to create a dialogue with their students, Hoover High School student Christopher Chung said to the LA Times, “The only way students were finding out about it was through social media. Our principal hasn’t said anything about it.”

Regarding the logistics and enforcement policies to be employed by the schools themselves, Chung said, “Nobody really understands what it is about, or what the main objectives are of the program.”

Whether this program proves effective in keeping students safe or not, it is unacceptable for these administrators to withhold information about Geo Listening from their students, who have every right to know how their online presence is being monitored. If students know the types of behavior that Geo Listening will be looking for from the start, and if they are clearly told the consequences of being accused of online misconduct, their online actions will be much more cautiously calculated.

Chris Frydrych, CEO of Geo Listening, emphasizes the fact that his company monitors only public posts and will not search students’ private messages or e-mails, which are likely where the more damaging instances of bullying would happen. This claim begs the question of whether social media’s easily customizable privacy settings will be respected by Geo Listening, and if not, whether their case for student safety affirms the ethicality of their actions.

CNN published an article on the GUSD on Sept. 18, in which the issue of how the schools might handle a post that threatens gun violence was broached. In response, Superintendent Richard Sheehan said “I can see it turning over to the police. That would be a situation in which discipline would follow.”

While these cases of violence, suicide and bullying certainly warrant a response, they are also severe cases, which must remain the primary focus of the district’s monitoring program. Because of Geo Listening’s services, administrators will be able to tell when and where a student is posting from, meaning that students will be observed and scrutinized at all times. “No matter where [students] are, if they are advertising in the public domain, it’s no different than if they’re standing in front of a teacher,” Frydrych said. The GUSD must now walk a fine line between prevention and punishment for petty misconduct.

Monitoring so many students on and off campus while investigating such a diverse set of issues could prove to be problematic. Administrators will be privy to a great deal of information upon which they may be tempted to act when they do not have the right to do so. While there have not yet been any cases in which a student has faced disciplinary action based upon their online activity, the GUSD must be careful not to overstep its boundaries by punishing students for off-campus activities that do not pose a direct threat to students on campus.

For this program to last, the GUSD must limit its actions to preventive measures in severe cases of danger in which substantial evidence warrants a call to action. If administrators start punishing students for organizing off-campus parties, criticizing teachers and institutions or for any of the other minor mistakes young adults are susceptible to make while forming an online persona, the community will have a reason to question the validity of this program.

In the coming year, Geo Listening will be monitoring up to 3,000 schools. The public has only heard about one district, which means that school administrators around the nation are exemplifying the same negligence displayed by the GUSD in withholding information from their students. It is unclear what kind of precedent this practice of unannounced monitoring will set for educators and students alike in years to come.

Malcolm MacLoed is undeclared sophomore. He can be reached at macleod@oxy.edu or on twitter at @WklyMMacLeod.

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