Mostly, the Education Week story about the use of hyper-intrusive surveillance by school systems felt like every other story about every other aspect of the technological nightmare being constantly built up around us. There were the anecdotes that were pretty much as bad as you would have thought, if you’d thought about it: one threat-trawling service flagged tweets “about the movie ‘Shooter,’ the ‘shooting clinic’ put on by the Stephen F. Austin State University women’s basketball team, and someone apparently pleased their credit score was ‘shooting up’”; another service, which monitors use of school computers and official student email, has “created an ’emotionally intelligent’ app that sends parents weekly reports and automated push notifications detailing their children’s internet searches and browsing histories.”
And there were the accounts, as there always are, that were worse than what you might have thought up if you tried, like the one about a content-monitoring company called Gaggle:
[S]tudents plug their personal devices into district-issued computers, leading Gaggle’s filters to automatically suck up and scan their private photos and videos…
One student was flagged for having photos of himself taking bong hits. Other students were flagged for personal photos showing fights and nude images that could be considered child pornography. Evergreen school administrators responded by notifying parents, police, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
But every surveillance-tech story is like that. Our society has created monitoring abilities that were entirely unthinkable a generation ago—endless streams of private images and private text, machines capable of searching and scanning them, mediated and therefore recordable records of everywhere a person goes, how they move, what they read or look at—and these systems are operated and stitched together and exploited by people professionally and ideologically conditioned to always do more and take more and sell more of what they take. No one is paid to ask “Is this a good idea?” or “What harm might this do?”
What set the Education Week story apart from the usual ones was the way the people behind the atrocity talked about it. They didn’t lie about what they were doing, as some do when they’re caught or questioned. They didn’t spin out grandiose visions about how they were transforming the whole world. They spoke, instead, in a horrifying witless register, using dull and familiar banalities:
“If you’re responsible for the safety and security of a school, you have to pay attention to the places where harm is being foreshadowed,” said Gary Margolis, the CEO of Social Sentinel, which claims “thousands” of K-12 schools in 30 states are using its service.
“Kids cry out for help at all times,” said Mike Jolley, Securly’s director of K-12 safety. “You don’t ever shut off caring for your students.”
It’s just the way the world works now, said Gaggle CEO Jeff Patterson.
“Privacy went out the window in the last five years,” he said. “We’re a part of that. For the good of society, for protecting kids.”
Responsible. Safety, security. Help. Caring. Protecting kids. The battle to defend liberty and privacy against the demands of security has been a long one and a losing one, but where technology meets the school system, it’s entirely over. These were not arguments, to be weighted against counter-arguments. They were barely assertions. They were just verbal talismans. We’re protecting kids. How could any case be made for not protecting kids?
Thirty years ago, in my public high school, the inside of your locker was your private space. I rant about this to younger people, raised on K-9 cops doing dog sweeps for drug scent, sometimes. Now the schools, or the schools’ contractors, are collecting and screening every social media post in the community, from “all users, including adults,” and are digging through kids’ private files on their personal devices, as close as they can get to their living thoughts. Decades ago, in the old world, the point was to treat the students as citizens, to prepare them for the rights and restrictions of the society they would be living in as adults. That seems to be the point now, too.