• Tech Harry

US Schools System: US Schools Are Using AI To Track Students

Updated: Feb 15

Over 50 million k-12 students will go back to school in the US this month. For many of them using a school computer, every word they type will be tracked.

Under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), any US school that receives federal funding is required to have an internet-safety policy. As school-issued tablets and Chromebook laptops become more commonplace, schools must install technological guardrails to keep their students safe. For some, this simply means blocking inappropriate websites. Others, however, have turned to software companies like Gaggle, Securely, and GoGuardian to surface potentially worrisome communications to school administrators.

These Safety Management Platforms (SMPs) use natural-language processing to scan through the millions of words typed on school computers. If a word or phrase might indicate bullying or self-harm behavior, it gets surfaced for a team of humans to review.

During the last 10 years, the US has witnessed 180 schools shootouts with a staggering 356 victims. With weaker gun control laws in the country, schools are turning to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to protect the students. But a recent AI system installed in almost 9 US public schools, according to Recode, raised some privacy concerns.

The AI based software is called Appearance Search and is developed by a company named Aviglion The software is capable of finding a student in a school campus, based on their appearance, age, gender, clothes and certain facial features.

Safety, managed

The most popular SMPs all work slightly differently. Gaggle, which charges roughly $5 per student annually, is a filter on top of popular tools like Google Docs and Gmail. When the Gaggle algorithm surfaces a word or phrase that may be of concern—like a mention of drugs or signs of cyberbullying—the “incident” gets sent to human reviewers before being passed on to the school. Securly goes one step beyond classroom tools and gives schools the option to perform sentiment analysis on students’ public social media posts. Using AI, the software is able to process thousands of student tweets, posts, and status updates to look for signs of harm.

Kelly thinks SMPs help normalize surveillance from a young age. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook and other recent data breaches from companies like Equifax, we have the opportunity to teach kids the importance of protecting their online data, he said.

How Appearance Search Works?

The software is integrated into the surveillance system of the school. So if a school safety officer witnesses any suspicious student activity, he/she can click on the particular student's body to attain more information of the student. The software will analyze the physical properties of the student like the clothes, gender, hair, color and what the Avigilion says some facial characteristics. After analyzing the said features, the software will then match the image with any image having similar characteristics of other camera feeds.

Informed Consent

Critics like Keller believe digital surveillance might have a chilling effect on students’ freedom of expression. If students know they’re being monitored, they might censor themselves from speaking their mind. This would, of course, only occur if the students knew they were being watched.

Though most school districts require parents to sign blanket consent agreements to use technology in the classroom, some districts believe they’ll get a more representative picture of behavior if students aren’t aware of the software, according to Patterson. In other words, some districts don’t let the kids know they’re being tracked.

“Parental consent can be a get-out-of-jail-free card for vendors,” Bill Fitzgerald, a long-time school technology director, who now consults schools and non-profits on privacy issues, told Quartz. “When a parent consents to terms [to a variety of edtech tools] at the beginning of the school year, that’s all the third-party really needs to operate.”

SMPs market to parents’ and school districts’ biggest fears. “This might be the only insight adults get to a student’s suffering,”Securly’s website saysbefore quoting a director of IT in Michigan public schools:

Gaggle has gone even further. Not only do SMPs let schools monitor students, but the same software can be used to surveil teachers, it suggests. “Think about the recent teacher work stoppage in West Virginia,” a recent blog post reads. “Could the story have been different if school leaders there requested search results for ‘health insurance’ or ‘strike’ months earlier? Occasional searches for ‘salary’ or ‘layoffs’ could stave off staff concerns that lead to adverse press for your school district.”

When we start monitoring kids’ behavior from a young age, Keller believes it can set a dangerous precedent. As adults reckon with issues of privacy and data protection, she believes kids must also learn what it means to give companies access to their personal information.

Liz Kline, a California parent, told Quartz. “It’s fine now when he’s six, but what about when he’s in high school and wants to organize a walk out?”

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