If war is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne had it, then scaring the hell out of people is the health of the security state. Nothing scares people more than threats to wee ones, which is why “think of the children” is the go-to marketing hook for control-freak policies. And if children are involved in authoritarian schemes, you know that implicates public schools, which are the focus of a new report on surveillance and kids by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The Rattler is a weekly newsletter from J.D. Tuccille. If you care about government overreach and tangible threats to everyday liberty, this is for you.
Surveillance Inside the Schoolhouse
“Over the last two decades, a segment of the educational technology (EdTech) sector that markets student surveillance products to schools — the EdTech Surveillance industry — has grown into a $3.1 billion a year economic juggernaut with a projected 8% annual growth rate,” begins Digital Dystopia The Danger in Buying What the EdTech Surveillance Industry is Selling. “The EdTech Surveillance industry accomplished that feat by playing on school districts’ fears of school shootings, student self-harm and suicides, and bullying — marketing them as common, ever-present threats.”
This being the modern ACLU, the report’s focus is not on decisions made by authoritarian school administrators, but on the companies that sell those administrators tools that help them implement authoritarianism. It’s difficult to believe vendors of snooping tools would exist without demand for their products, but the report assumes the EdTech sector beguiles naive administrators with “biased marketing materials” that focus “on stoking fear around student self-harm, suicides, and bullying.”
That said, the report offers valuable insight into surveillance in American public schools. It also examines the damaging environment surveillance creates for the kids subject to pervasive monitoring.
Big Hallway Monitor is Watching
As the authors detail, among the technologies are surveillance cameras. These are often linked to software for facial recognition, access control, behavior analysis, and weapon detection. That is, cameras scan student faces and then algorithms identify them, allow or deny them entry based on that ID, decide if their activities are threatening, and determine if objects they carry may be dangerous or forbidden.
“False hits, such as mistaking a broomstick, three-ring binder, or a Google Chromebook laptop for a gun or other type of weapon, could result in an armed police response to a school,” cautions the report.
That’s not a random assortment of harmless-until-misidentified items; a footnoted 2022 Charlotte Observer piece points out such objects were tagged as weapons by scanners in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “A how-to video posted earlier this year by administrators at Butler High School instructs students to remove certain belongings from their backpacks — and walk through the scanner holding their laptops above their heads — to avoid setting off a false alarm,” it adds.
Huh. What happens if behavior analysis algorithms decide that brandished laptops are threatening?
Also called out is software that monitors social media, students’ communications, and web-surfing habits. Audio monitors that are supposed to detect gunshots—but can be triggered by slammed doors (as at Greenwood High School in Arkansas earlier this year)—also feature in many schools.
The ACLU also points out something I wrote up last year: Public-health panic during the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged what was already a creeping culture of surveillance in public schools.
“Because of the emergency shift to remote learning, the use of remote learning technologies (quite a few of which were sold by rebranded student surveillance companies) went from a limited to near total market penetration within a matter of weeks,” notes the report. “Despite warnings, the pressing need to educate America’s students despite the loss of in-person instruction left little time to consider the long-term impact of adopting these remote-learning but also student surveillance tools.”
Does Big Hallway Monitor at least make kids safer?
“The creation and implementation of technologies for watching and policies for monitoring and control are premised on the notion that they achieve their intended purposes: improved learning outcomes and student safety,” University of North Carolina law professor Barbara Fedders commented in a 2019 law review article on the effects of school surveillance. “However, for many of these technologies, the evidence of efficacy is scant; others have not been tested at all.”
Kids Learn Reading, Writing, and Scrutiny
That’s not to say surveillance has no impact. Students are aware that they’re being observed. Of students aged 14–18 surveyed by the ACLU, 62 percent saw video cameras in their schools (the U.S. Department of Education says cameras are used by 91 percent of public schools), and 49 percent reported monitoring software. Understandably, this affects their behavior. Thirty-two percent say, “I always feel like I’m being watched,” and 26 percent fret over what their “school and the companies they contract with do with the data.”
“Research demonstrates the damaging effect of surveillance on children’s ability to develop in healthy ways,” Fedders added. “Pervasive surveillance can create a climate in which adults are seen as overestimating and overreacting to risk. Children, in turn, cannot develop the ability to evaluate and manage risk themselves in order to function effectively.”
Notably, school surveillance normalizes the idea that constant monitoring is good and necessary for preserving safety.
“Americans under the age of 30 stand out when it comes to 1984‐style in‐home government surveillance cameras. 3 in 10 (29 percent) Americans under 30 favor ‘the government installing surveillance cameras in every household’ in order to ‘reduce domestic violence, abuse, and other illegal activity,'” the Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins and Jordan Gygi wrote in June of survey results. “Support declines with age, dropping to 20 percent among 30–44 year olds and dropping considerably to 6 percent among those over the age of 45.”
In fact, support for a heavy authoritarian hand overall is gaining ground with young Americans. A survey of college students by the Foundation for Individuals Rights and Expression (FIRE) found “forty-five percent said blocking other students from attending a speech may be acceptable in some situations.”
“We may well learn what happens when a nation founded on liberty rejects liberty,” FIRE executive vice president Nic Perrino warns of such results.
If young Americans ultimately reject liberty, it may result from trapping them in miniature surveillance states that defy every premise of a free society. Kids will grow up to value freedom only if they’re raised in an environment where privacy and liberty are treated as normal and good.
While we wait for public schools to change, you may want to consider the myriad of options, from private school to homeschooling, that let you tailor your kids’ education and environment.