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Technology surveillance companies that sell their products to school administrators are creating a “digital dystopia” for U.S. schoolchildren, a new American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report concluded.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased school shootings, a $3.1 billion educational technology (EdTech) surveillance industry has scored huge profits based on the claim that its digital tools — including video cameras, facial recognition software, artificial intelligence (AI)-driven behavior detection technology, online and social media monitoring software and more — prevent bullying, self-harm and school violence.
However, the industry failed to back up that claim with evidence and instead used fear as a primary marketing tactic, the ACLU report said.
The ACLU — after conducting its own research and reviewing additional research commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice — found a “lack of clear evidence” that the products advertised by EdTech firms keep students safe.
Marlow told The Defender he “regretfully” watched school administrators and state legislatures opted to use funds on surveillance technologies “to keep our children safe.”
“These decisions haunt me,” he said, “because, as an ACLU senior policy counsel focused on privacy, surveillance and technology issues, I know full well that surveillance does not deter bad conduct, and it certainly does not protect our students.”
Marlow said the 61-page report reveals a “living surveillance nightmare” that is “inadvertently hurting our kids” by denying them access to important information, undermining their trust of adults and making it “too risky” to communicate certain thoughts they have.
“It’s the exact opposite lesson we should be teaching our students,” he said.
Greg Glaser, a digital privacy expert and attorney with Children’s Health Defense (CHD), praised the ACLU for rolling back the curtain on the EdTech industry’s tactics of marketing “constant” video surveillance as a supposed attempt to “dissuade criminality” among students.
“If parents could not only see but experience what their children experience in these hellish environments, there would be an exodus [from U.S. public schools],” Glaser told The Defender.
14% of students say surveillance makes them feel ‘anxious’
The ACLU’s report does more than debunk the EdTech surveillance industry’s claims of efficacy and draw attention to its “deceptive marketing practices” that use fear to persuade officials to purchase its products.
The report also showcases the voices of more than 500 students ages 14-18 who participated in a nationally representative survey about how tech surveillance in their schools impacts them.
The report includes comments from more than three dozen students who shared their opinions in focus groups led by the ACLU.
Some students reported that being surveilled increased their fear and anxiety by making them feel “anxious” (14%), “exposed” (15%), “paranoid” (13%) and “violated (12%). Some even said the technology made them feel “unsafe” (7%) and “scared” (5%).
More than a quarter of the students surveyed said they were concerned about what their school — and companies their school contracts with — did with the personal data it collected.
Eighteen percent said the surveillance limited what they chose to say online, signaling indirect censorship.
According to Marlow, one of the report’s most compelling findings was that “the use of student surveillance technologies significantly harms students, especially those who are the most vulnerable, which includes students of color, LGBTQ+ and non-binary students, students with disabilities, low-income students, and undocumented students.”
For example, the report explained how school surveillance can “intensify” the well-documented racially discriminatory effects of the school-to-prison pipeline “particularly when students of color are accused of wrongdoing.”
Marlow said a chief aim of the project was to bring this information to school policymakers in the hope that “the money we spend on students safety goes towards interventions with the most proven benefits and least harm.”
“The ACLU cannot be physically present in every meeting to help educate decision-makers,” he said, “so we released our report to provide an unbiased, honest, and in-depth analysis of the EdTech surveillance industry and its products that we hope will aid school districts in their future decision-making.”
Surveillance in schools about getting students ‘to march in lockstep with a police state’
Commenting on the report, John Whitehead, a civil liberties attorney and author, said it shows how young people are groomed “to march in lockstep with a police state.”
Some schools are now using a host of surveillance technologies, including video cameras, finger and palm scanners, iris scanners, RFID (radiofrequency identification) and GPS tracking devices, Whitehead said.
Whitehead told The Defender:
“Instead of being taught the three R’s of education (reading, writing and arithmetic), young people are being drilled in the three I’s of life in the American police state: indoctrination, intimidation and intolerance.”
Michael Rectenwald, Ph.D., author of “Google Archipelago: The Digital Gulag and the Simulation of Freedom,” said the object of EdTech surveillance in schools is “clearly” subjection to authority rather than deterrence of crime.
Rectenwald said the school system is the primary site of indoctrination, where children “are molded into the kinds of subjects that the system requires.” He said surveillance technologies in schools “habituate students to a life of being constantly surveilled and controlled.”
“Biometric surveillance is the elite’s tool for monitoring and controlling subjects to a degree thought unimaginable by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao,” he said. “It is no wonder that a significant percentage of the school students under surveillance find themselves feeling ‘paranoid,’ anxious and trapped. They are trapped — in a giant panopticon.”
“Under the direction of government officials focused on making the schools more authoritarian (sold to parents as a bid to make the schools safer), young people in America are now first in line to be searched, surveilled, spied on, [and] threatened.”
Schools ‘a microcosm of the total surveillance state’
According to Whitehead, from the moment children enter a U.S. public school to the moment they graduate, they will be exposed to a “steady diet” of:
- Draconian zero-tolerance policies that criminalize childish behavior.
- Overreaching anti-bullying statutes that criminalize speech.
- School resource officers (police) tasked with disciplining and/or arresting so-called “disorderly” students.
- Standardized testing that emphasizes rote answers over critical thinking.
- Politically correct mindsets that teach young people to censor themselves and those around them.
- Extensive biometric and surveillance systems that when coupled with everything else acclimate young people to a world in which they have no freedom of thought, speech or movement.
“This is indeed a digital dystopia: our nation’s schools have become a microcosm of the total surveillance state which currently dominates America,” Whitehead said.
W. Scott McCollough, CHD’s chief litigator for the organization’s electromagnetic radiation (EMR) cases, agreed.
McCollough said the ACLU report’s key findings reflected realities in society at large, telling The Defender:
“The surveillance state is sold through fear porn. The profits are great especially when subsidized by the government. The tools don’t actually work toward solving the stated concern but do accomplish other ends: everyone is abashed and the knowledge of constant monitoring does change their behavior.
“As usual, the children provide lessons for us all.”
Miriam Eckenfels-Garcia, director of CHD’s EMR program, said she was pleased to finally see the ACLU working on an issue that CHD also covers.
“We hope this will be the case in the censorship arena as well,” she added.