Santa Claus is apparently not the only one making a list of kids and checking it twice for bad behavior. The Glendale Unified School District north of Los Angeles has hired an outside firm to monitor student social media exchanges for signs of bullying, sexual harassment, drug use or other anti-social activities.
The district signed up with Geo Listening—“Tuning you into the student conversation”—last year and pays it $40,500 a year to snoop on 14,000 middle- and high school kids and report any suspicious activity. The Hermosa Beach-based company claims to have a growing clientele that should include 3,000 public and private K-12 institutions, colleges and universities by the end of the year.
Coming on the heels of two area teenage suicides, the professed aim of the monitoring is to short-circuit potentially destructive situations before they fester. Glendale started with a pilot program last year aimed at three high schools before extending it to middle schools. The company makes daily reports to the district, including screen grabs of the offending exchanges, but does not participate in the aftermath.
Geo Listening emphasizes that “no privacy is violated” because “posts we monitor on social media networks are already made public by the students themselves.” But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) isn’t so sure about that. “This program is sweeping and far afield of what is necessary to ensure student safety and intrudes deeply into students' privacy and conduct outside of school,” ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme told the Los Angeles Times.
The company says it is not given a list of student names by the district, but does not disclose how it goes about determining who to target. In addition to monitoring social media like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, the company also monitors student use of smartphones during school hours.
The district did not notify students or parents about the surveillance program, which only became broadly known after news media reports. District officials say that, to date, no student has been disciplined over anything uncovered by Geo Listening.
It’s also not clear if students are being monitored while away from the school premises. If so, that raises a different set of questions. Lee Tien, an attorney for the nonprofit free speech and consumer rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, 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.”
Regardless of whether students are disciplined for expression of their thoughts—on or off campus—there is a life lesson being imparted to a generation that will be increasingly tracked, analyzed and recorded in databases as they move through cyberspace and real space: You are under surveillance, so watch what you say.