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Cyber Snoops Watching Your Kids

A shocking piece in Politico that details the lengths to which schools go to spy on our children's online lives.

This is especially true for Common Core administrators who are scouring the internet looking for leaks of questions from standardized tests. This is bad enough, but there appears to be no allowance made for protecting privacy -- even when it comes to information not even related to Common Core.

The web patrol team works for Caveon, a test security company charged with protecting the integrity of new Common Core exams developed by the publishing giant Pearson. To that end, they’re monitoring social media for any leaks about test questions. News of the surveillance broke this week, sparking a firestorm. The American Federation of Teachers even circulated a petition demanding that Pearson “stop spying on our kids.”

But Pearson is hardly the only company keeping a watchful eye on students.

School districts and colleges across the nation are hiring private companies to monitor students’ online activity, down to individual keystrokes, to scan their emails for objectionable content and to scrutinize their public posts on Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram and other popular sites. The surveillance services will send principals text-message alerts if a student types a suspicious phrase or surfs to a web site that raises red flags.

[...]

The rise of online student monitoring comes at a time of rising parent protests against other forms of digital surveillance — namely, the vast quantities of data that technology companies collect on kids as they click through online textbooks, games and homework. Companies providing those online resources can collect millions of unique data points on a child in a single day. Much of that information is not protected by federal privacy law.

School administrators don’t tend to be too interested in that data, because it’s far too granular for them to make sense of it until an ed-tech company mines it for patterns.

But some principals, coaches and college presidents are acutely interested in student tweets.

Enter the surveillance services, which promise to scan student posts around the clock and flag anything that hints at bullying, violence or depression. The services will also flag any post that could tarnish the reputation of either the student or the educational institution. They’ll even alert administrators to garden-variety teenage hijinks, like a group of kids making plans to skateboard on school property .

Some of the monitoring software on the market can track and log every keystroke a student makes while using a school computer in any location, including at home. Principals can request text alerts if kids type in words like “guns” or “drugs,” or browse websites about anorexia or suicide. They can even order up reports identifying which students fritter away hours on Facebook and which buckle down to homework right after dinner.

Obviously, the law has had trouble catching up to the technology. Only five states limit this kind of snooping on our kids and five more are considering it. But what's really needed is a federal standard that will stop them all from prying into what's essentially none of their damn business.

Trying to prevent the next Newtown or Columbine is not an excuse. The chances the snooping would head off a school massacre are infinitesimally small. Nor is shaming bullies, or catching bigots in the act of expressing themselves, or policing threats a reason to so egregiously violate the privacy of children or adults.

Perhaps even more worrisome are the tech companies who mine your child's online life in order to develop data they can sell to all sorts of companies. There are inexpensive programs you can download that can protect your kid from most of this snooping, but the question of why it is legal in the first place lingers.

There are enough hackers, phishers, and Nigerian princes out there already trying to spy on and scam you. We don't need their legal counterparts adding to our worries.