Schools are increasingly adopting surveillance technology to spy on students while they’re at school, at home, or even on their social media. The companies that make these surveillance products and services advertise them to schools as a way to keep students safe–but there’s no evidence so far that they actually protect students, and worst of all, they can harm the people they are supposed to protect.
Surveillance isn’t normal–it’s spying. Schools that use these technologies to track and monitor students are violating their privacy. If you’re a student being spied on by one of these technologies, you’re right to be concerned.
Techniques Used to Invade Your Privacy
While not all of the technologies used to surveil students have the same capabilities, these are some of the techniques that can be used to track every move you make and the data that can be gathered through these techniques. The types of surveillance and related filtering technologies schools are using continue to grow, so this list does not cover every type of tool or the ways they could be used.
Types of Data That Can Be Tracked
- Location Data: Tracking students’ location using their device’s GPS coordinates, Wi-Fi connections, and contactless chips in bus passes/ID cards, potentially both on and off school property. Schools have used this data for automated attendance tracking and management, including for class tardiness and school bus riding, and assigning consequences such as detention.
- Audiovisual Data: Images, video, and audio of students while they are on school grounds. These can be compared to databases of known audiovisual files to identify a person.
- Web Browsing Data: Monitoring browsing history keeps a record of everything you read online, every site you access, and every term you search for, and then forwards this information to school administrators, and possibly reviewers employed by the surveillance service company.
- Device Usage: Some invasive software can capture and keep a record of everything you do on a device (phone or laptop), even the things you type or delete. This can include everything you search for on the Internet, what you post on social media, and messages sent through chat applications. If you log into a website or service (like your email or social media accounts), invasive software may also capture your usernames and passwords.
Types of Technologies That Can Track You
- Spyware (sometimes called stalkerware): This is an application that has been installed on a device that gives the administrator full control over it. If this surveillance tool has been installed on your device, the administrator of the spyware could have access to every single file, picture, text message, email, and social media post (even the disappearing ones). Once this application is installed, the device can be monitored in real time and scanned for things like location data, contacts, call/text logs, and browser history.
- Surveillance Cameras: Some schools have installed surveillance cameras that have the ability to identify and track students as they move across campus, both inside buildings and outdoors. These cameras may also have face recognition capabilities.
- Microphones: Microphones can be installed at various points across a school. They can be equipped with software that is used to record and analyze all sound for the purposes of aggression and stress detection, but this technology is often inaccurate.
- Social Media Monitoring: These are services that monitor students’ social media accounts and then report flagged content to school administrators. These services also have the potential to map who students are friends with, who they spend time with, and what topics they are interested in.
- Internet Monitoring and Filtering: If you use school Wi-Fi, administrators can get a high-level view of your web browsing activity, and even block access to some sites. A more invasive version of this technology requires students to install a security certificate, which enables administrators to decrypt students’ encrypted Internet activity. When this kind of certificate is installed, administrators can access everything students read and type into their browsers while on school Wi-Fi, like questions on search engines, messages sent to others, and even sensitive information like passwords.
- Document and Email Scanning: Some services integrate with productivity tools students use to complete their assignments and communicate with each other and school staff. These integrations use filters to scan the contents of what students write in services such as Google for Education (also known as G-Suite) and Microsoft’s Office 365. In some cases, these services also scan email attachments, such as images or PDFs.
What Happens to All this Data?
Data Aggregation, Reporting, and Sharing: Many of these services and technologies retain and store the invasive data they gather about students. This data can tell detailed stories about a student’s life and contain extremely sensitive information that can cause serious harm if there is a data leak. Some companies may even sell this data or share it with third parties. In some cases, student data is reported to school resource officers or the police.
What Can I Do About It?
#1. Understand How School Surveillance Affects You
Before you can address school surveillance, it’s important to know the ways it can affect you and the people around you.
What Do They Know?
The best solutions for fighting back against surveillance don’t need to involve a fancy tool or workaround. Sometimes, the smartest way to beat surveillance technology is not to use the systems that are targeted by surveillance (if you can), or to be careful about the information you do reveal as you navigate using them.
An important step in this process is finding out what, if any, surveillance technologies your school is using to track you, the devices you use (personal or school-issued), and school networks. Find out and research what the school is using, so that you know what information is being tracked and can take steps to protect yourself and your data.
Privacy as a Team Sport
Protecting your privacy is a job no one can do alone. While there are many steps you can take to protect your privacy on your own, the real protection comes when we protect each others’ privacy as a group. If you change your own tools and behavior, but your classmates don’t, it’s more likely that information about you will be caught up in the surveillance they are under as well.
Let’s use an example scenario to explore how this could happen:
You’re socializing with friends from your school, and some who go to other schools. You turned off location tracking on your mobile device, but your friends haven’t. Their devices are tracking all of their movements and how long they are in a location. One of your classmates takes a picture of everyone with their mobile device. Since their mobile device is tracking their location, this information is included in the picture’s metadata. Your friend posts the picture on their public social media profile and tags you. If your school is conducting social media surveillance, they can see who posted the picture, everyone in the picture, and the time and location the picture was taken. Even though you tried to keep yourself from being tracked, your school now knows all of this information–not just about you, but about everyone in your friend group who was there.
You are only as protected as the least-protected person in your social group. That’s why it’s important to help each other and protect your privacy as a team.
You may wonder, “How could the information gathered in this scenario be used to harm me or my friends?” Here are some examples:
- Your friends who don’t attend your school are now included in your school’s surveillance system dragnet and don’t know they have been surveilled.
- You and your friends might be attending an LGBTQ+ event when the photo was taken. If you share or discuss this photo on social media while being under school surveillance, it may trigger a scanning technology's list of keywords and notify school officials. If school officials have biases against LGBTQ+ people–or if the school gives unsupportive parents access to this information via a dashboard, parent login, or even direct notifications–this could put you or your friend's well-being at risk.
- You might be doing political organizing for a cause, and if you’re at a private or religious school, the school and/or your parents may not approve of it depending on the issue. In this scenario, your school could suspend you or your parents could punish you for this activity.
#2. Talk About It
- Talk to Your Friends: Help them understand the problem, why their privacy is important to protect, and that privacy is a team sport.
- Talk to Trusted Adults: Tell them your concerns and ask for their help.
- Use Your Collective Voice: Tell your school how surveillance affects you. Request, at least, transparency and accountability on decisions regarding school surveillance technologies: your school should be honest about what technologies they are using, how the technologies work, and how your data is being protected. You should also ask them to provide proof that the technologies actually help improve school and student safety. You may even want to demand that your school stop using certain technologies altogether or promise not to adopt certain technologies in the future.
- Meet with your school’s principal, information technology administrator, and other school administrators.
- Attend school board meetings and present your concerns.
- Find your school’s or district’s calendar of board meetings.
- Recruit other students and have clear talking points.
- Speak during the comment period for the topic if it’s on the agenda, or in the general comment period if it’s not on the agenda (arrive early and sit toward the front to give yourself the best chance of getting to speak).
- Be courageous and firm. It’s your privacy, not theirs.
- Research and write about it in your school newspaper or other student media.
- Create a petition and organize your classmates.
- Contact state/federal government officials and ask them to act to protect your privacy.
Arguments You Might Encounter
Surveillance proponents use a few common arguments to convince you to give up fighting for your privacy. Here are counterpoints you can use to push back against surveillance culture and help others understand the harm it does.
Myth #1. “If you did nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide.”
This argument is based on an incorrect assumption: that only “bad” people or people who broke the rules or the law want privacy. There are numerous reasons why someone would want to maintain their privacy. It comes down to this: what do you want to protect? The fact that you went to a health clinic or attended a political rally, searched online about sexual orientations or a health issue, or shared personal photos with a friend–these are all examples of things that are private and should remain that way. Privacy is about protecting things that matter to you.
Myth #2. “You’re worried that we could use this technology to cause serious harm, but we would never do that!”
The people in charge want you to trust that, while they could use surveillance technologies to abuse their power, they wouldn’t. It’s not a matter of trust–they shouldn’t have this power in the first place. Here’s a short film that explores the effect surveillance can have on people, with examples of how this power imbalance is unjust. Another issue is that student data is often in the hands of the companies that provide these surveillance products and services, that have control over this sensitive data, and could share it with others.
Myth #3. “This is for your own safety.”
There is no evidence that these technologies increase student safety, and, in fact, they have been shown to harm the very students they are intended to protect:
Myth #4. “It’s useless to fight against it.”
This is privacy paralysis, and this sense of helplessness is exactly how surveillance proponents want you to feel. However, you do have the power to create change. When people collectively work together to fight for what they believe in, it works. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
#3. Minimize the Data Being Tracked
Surveillance is all about getting as much information about you as possible: your habits, where you go and when, who you associate with, and what you care about. While the strategies described below won’t protect you from all the surveillance types described in this guide, they will help reduce the amount of data that can be collected about you.
Lockdown Your Identity Online
- Protect yourself on social networks:
- Where you can, change your social media accounts to be private instead of public, and review all new follower requests before approving them. You may also want to review your current followers to make sure you know and trust them.
- If you need a public account, consider using a separate, private account for topics, posts, or conversations you’d like to keep private.
- Don’t just change your own social media settings and behavior. Talk with your friends about the potentially sensitive data you reveal about each other online, and how you can protect each other as a team.
- Reduce the risks you face in online groups by adjusting visibility settings.
- Enable two-factor authentication (or “2FA”) on as many online accounts as you can. If the data gathered about you through surveillance is leaked in a breach, having 2FA enabled will make it harder for others to access your accounts, even if they know your usernames and passwords.
Turn Off Location Tracking When You Don’t Need It
The way to do this can vary by device and by application. You can change your overall location-tracking preferences in your system settings, but this may not turn off location tracking completely. For example, some mobile device applications may turn your location tracking on for a variety of reasons; you may need to look at your phone’s settings, or in some cases each application’s permissions to disable it.
Be Aware of Risks in Personal vs. School Environments
For students worried about school surveillance, it’s critical to keep your personal and school lives separate. Avoid using school devices, accounts, and networks for personal activity. Even if your school claims to use geofencing (i.e. you’re only monitored on campus), a lot of the information can leak between your personal and school life through your Internet activity or the devices you use.
- Devices and Networks: Everything you do on a school-issued device, even if you’re using your home Wi-Fi or another trusted network, could be tracked. Similarly, if you’re using a personal device on a school network, your activity could also be monitored. That’s why it’s best to access your personal or sensitive accounts only on your personal devices and networks you trust. This might not always be possible, but it’s a good goal.
- Logins: Don’t use your school email address for any personal online accounts. This could expose notifications, direct messages, and other content from your personal accounts to the school’s monitoring systems.
- Web Browsing: If there is information you don’t want your school to track, it’s better to search for those topics off of school devices and networks.
Use Good Digital Security Practices
Surveillance isn’t normal, and it isn’t okay. You are right to feel concerned and to want to speak up about your privacy. To learn more about how you can protect yourself, check out the rest of Surveillance Self-Defense’s guides. If you need a place to get started, take a look at our Security Starter Pack or our playlist of guides for LGBTQ Youth.