November 12, 2013
‘Big Brother’ Schools Over-Monitoring Students
Vast changes in the way we communicate, the Internet, social media and the like, present obvious but significant questions. To put it simply, we can all now say and do absolutely loads of different stuff to loads of different people, and all of that can be massively monitored. So what kind of controls do we place on it?
It is an issue for governments and now, we discover, for schools too. CNN reported that some schools are hiring tech companies to help them monitor their students’ social media activity. A few schools in the US, with more expected to follow, are paying thousands of dollars a year for help in identifying potential dangers to students, by searching for certain keywords, such as those related to bullying, violence, drug use and other things schools and parents worry about.
Richard Sheehan, the superintendent of the Glendale school district in LA, which is utilizing such a scheme, said that they were able to help a student who had been found to be talking about ending his life. In fact, Sheehan claims that they saved the student’s life.
Obviously, there are some significant moral questions here, not at all dissimilar to the ones raised by the NSA’s mass collection of data, as reported by the BBC, which recently caused outrage. What balance do we strike between people’s right to privacy and protecting their safety? There are, of course, legal questions too. When it comes to the schools’ situation, different jurisdictions have different opinions.
My first reaction, when I heard about the schools, was “Oh my God, as if it couldn’t get any worse, now even schools are in on the act.” But then I thought about it a bit, and realized that it is possibly not as outrageous as it seems, and certainly not as outrageous as the NSA stuff.
A teacher isn’t given Orwellian tags such as “Big Brother” for carefully and quietly watching what goes on within a class in order to make sure that the kids are as safe as possible. In fact, they would be tagged as a lot worse if they missed signs of bullying which led to a tragedy. It is not unreasonable to argue that a teacher’s responsibility towards students also extends outside of the classroom: for example, if they lived in the same community and became aware of bullying or other problems.
Let’s not forget, this isn’t NSA-style phone hacking. It is monitoring what is specifically intended to reach a public audience. That’s why it’s called ‘social’ media. In already reported cases of bullying, some schools investigate the private messages of those involved, but keeping tabs on all private messages is, quite obviously, not going to be part of what schools do. They are simply using information already shared with the public in order to identify potential problems, and big problems at that.
Another major difference from what governments are doing is the question of what motivations school authorities might have. Governments claim that all spying is done purely for our own greater good, but that is a little difficult to take at face value. With schools, though, what other reason than student wellbeing is there likely to be? They secretly want to assess the mood of the electorate in order to best manipulate when it comes to choosing a hall monitor? They want to watch out for any subversive mood that might threaten their grip on power? Luckily for them, there is no threat to their absolute power – no elections or communists to threaten them every four years, they just stay there!
Finally, these are kids we’re talking about. There is a reason we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) let them watch any movie they want, go where they want, whenever they want, or consume whatever they want. Even supporters of legalizing cannabis probably don’t think it should be legal for 12-year-olds to buy. Obviously, children have a right to some privacy, but adults have an obligation to look out for them, and doing that electronically is as valid as any other way of doing it. We just need to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.
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