How Schools Surveil Your Kids

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S1: Hey, guys, this is glacier driving here, and today we are going to be talking about GoGuardian

S2: that, as you just heard, is a YouTuber who goes by the name of Glacier and Dragon. So what is GoGuardian, you may ask? Well, if you guys don’t know what GoGuardian is, you’re in luck. GoGuardian is a software company that makes essentially spyware software that helps teachers and schools block and monitor on a really granular level what kids are doing online and seemingly in response, kids have made this whole YouTube genre ranting about the software my

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S1: school uses GoGuardian. It’s pretty bad. They can see what you’re doing on your screen. There’s a tab where it could see the time line and another tab where you could see every year, but every student in your class screen. And I just think that this feature just gives the teachers too much

S2: power or trying to find ways to get around it. OK, guys. So today we will be teaching you about how to disable GoGuardian. I played these videos for Priya Anand Priya as a tech reporter for Bloomberg, and she wrote a big story about GoGuardian, and she was not surprised.

S3: I have read a lot of student newspaper articles with kids saying like, Hey, with GoGuardian, we feel like we have no space to ourselves. Our whole lives are online right now and I have seen actually I went to a school and Pekin in Illinois to see how GoGuardian worked. And one of the most commonly searched for YouTube videos was how to get around GoGuardian.

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S2: Because even though this technology might make sense to teachers for remote learning, for students having everything you do be watched and tracked and logged, it’s a lot.

S3: If so much of life is online right now, then what does this mean for kids abilities to have, you know, like to be able to talk to your friends during the pandemic? If all of your interaction is through the computer now and all that’s being monitored, like, do you have a space where you can talk to your friends and have intimate conversations, especially while the world is turned upside down?

S2: Today on the show, the pandemic supercharged the kinds of technology being used in schools, often without any debate. Now it looks like it’s here to stay. But is that what’s best for students? I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us. At their simplest, GoGuardian and a handful of companies like it give teachers and administrators transparency. When a student is using a school issued Chromebook that has GoGuardian on it, the teacher can see what they’re searching for or even typing into a Google doc. Priya saw it in action at Pekin Community High School in Illinois, where they’ve been using GoGuardian for three years.

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S3: Well, for teachers, what’s interesting is they can at the start a class start what’s called a session, and they can kind of set the rules for what everyone who’s in their class is allowed to do on the computer in class. And then at the end of class, they also get a report on what everyone was actually doing online while they were in class. So if you tell everyone to pull up a certain worksheet and there’s a kid or two kids in a corner who seem like they’re really doing their work, but later on you get a report and they were, you know, playing a game or completing an assignment for a different class. Teachers say that that really helps them see, like, did I miss something while I was actually teaching that way, they don’t have to go around and actually, you know, peek behind every single screen.

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S2: I think one thing that that I was struck by in reading your reporting on GoGuardian is that this is much more sophisticated than just like blocking some web sites you can’t go to.

S3: Yes, it’s definitely steps further than just saying like, OK, YouTube is not allowed or OK, this other website is not allowed in class. It can track, for example, if a student is typing something into a Google doc, it can flag for administrator that a student typed whatever it might be into their Google doc and then quickly deleted it. For example,

S2: this company has been around since 2014, but the pandemic seems to have really supercharged use by schools and school districts. How does the pandemic kind of fit into this story?

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S3: Schools are already giving kids laptops right, and the Obama administration has kind of made a push for kids for schools to get into the digital era. So some schools already were giving kids laptops and tablets. But during the pandemic, I mean, so many schools that were holdouts or maybe didn’t give every single kid a laptop were then thrusting devices into their kids hands and saying, like, Can you just keep them and do your do your stuff all through your computer?

S2: And what was the pitch? What was the pitch that GoGuardian made to schools and to districts about why this software, you know, should should be something they did that they should invest in?

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S3: Administrators told us that, you know, for them, it was like sending a teacher basically home with the kid because with GoGuardian, since teachers can see what’s going on on a kid’s screen, so can administrators. They felt like it was kind of akin to having a teacher, you know, walk behind a student and see like, OK, this person’s not completing their worksheet right now, like, what are they thinking about? They could then see, like, you know, Johnny is just playing video games all day on a school computer. These three assignments for these classes have not been done. What’s going on? Now we know that this kid is is maybe having a hard time because of the pandemic. That was the argument.

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S2: I can definitely see how that would would fit into kind of a school’s virtual learning approach. But now a lot of schools have gone back to in-person learning. How are they using the tools now?

S3: What I find really interesting when I visited that school and Pekin, Illinois, it was teachers told me that they found GoGuardian more useful when they’re in the classroom because they, for example, they had AIDS and B days where every kid came in every other day last year when kids were at home. They didn’t tell them, like, sit at your computer eight hours straight. You have math class at eight a.m., English at nine a.m. Whatever they give kids assignments, they had to log in for attendance by a certain time. But the assignments were very much like complete them as you wish. And they also knew that some of their students had take it on jobs to be able to support their help support their families. So because kids weren’t necessarily in math class at eight a.m., right? Math teachers didn’t want to block things like YouTube, for example, because a kid in a language class might need to watch a Spanish video to do that assignment. But in the classroom, teachers feel like it’s it’s a great tool for them to be able to say, like, nobody’s going to open Netflix during my class. Nobody’s going to open Minecraft during my class or whatever it might be.

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S2: What type of reach does this company have, like how many kids, how many schools, what kind of numbers are we talking about?

S3: GoGuardian told us that their potential reach is more than 23 three million students, which is a pretty sizable portion of the K-to-12 population in the US. In Delaware and West Virginia, for example, the State Department of Education signed contracts to offer GoGuardian to all their schools

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S2: when Priya talked to parents in Pekin. A lot of them were more than fine with this kind of technology being used on their kids. They compared it with the parental controls that they have at home.

S3: By and large, it seems like across the country there’s not like a huge groundswell of parents saying like, Stop this now we don’t like this, don’t check our kids online. But there are parents in some pockets of the country like Montclair, New Jersey, for example, where parents did protest GoGuardian implementation. The school district sent out a note earlier this year saying, Hey, we’re testing this out. And parents there felt like, you know, where does the tracking end? Because GoGuardian does have a feature you can turn on that will track kids on personal devices or like family computers at home if they’re logged into their school account. One of the parents I spoke with was concerned that two kids, you know, not have the right any more to have any space to themselves. And he said, You know, when you were a teenager, I was a teenager. Kids wanted just you just wanted to shut the door sometimes and have some time to yourself.

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S2: The response from GoGuardian is that they serve a more important purpose than just keeping students on task. The company says its algorithms can detect troubling searches like content about suicide and that the software can then alert administrators about kids whose online behavior might mean they’re experiencing a mental health crisis.

S3: GoGuardian, you know, hangs its hat on. This really pitches itself as a tool that can help schools understand kids mental health, possibly slipping to the point of self-harm or harm to others, right? Being able to track if they search for something that might indicate that they need help. The principal told me that he has, you know, called families while they’re eating dinner with their kid, and they haven’t yet realized that something’s going wrong. But they’ve gotten an indication through GoGuardian that the kid was searching for something that might make it seem like the kid was at risk in some way. And this is what GoGuardian. You know, this is part of their big pitch to schools that they can help catch kids who might be falling through the cracks and catch kids who might be thinking about self-harm.

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S2: Is there any evidence that that’s true that that these sort of digital red flags have helped schools step in and helped kids who are in crisis?

S3: You’d be hard pressed to find, you know, empirical hard evidence by a third party researcher. But Peak in Community High School, for example, shared anecdotes about how they feel, you know, even if they catch one kid who might be slipping. They feel it’s worth it.

S2: The algorithms that GoGuardian uses are proprietary, and I’m thinking about this in the context of mental health that seems complicated and I guess maybe problematic if you are using a proprietary software tool in a public school to. You know, trigger alerts about some child to parents, administrators and teachers. It seems tough if the algorithm itself is a black box.

S3: Critics do say that these companies, their algorithms operate in a black box, and if they’re heavily influencing how public schools are handling decisions about children in those schools, there should be more oversight. It’s an open question like, we don’t know, right, how these algorithms actually make these decisions. And, you know, Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with two other senators, sent a letter to GoGuardian and a couple of its competitors asking for more of an explanation on how the algorithms work and have the companies considered whether their algorithms account for potential bias? Have they considered whether their algorithms could help compound racial disparities in school discipline?

S2: Yeah. I mean, I’ve looked at that letter from from Senator Warren and others, and it made me wonder a couple of different things, including like, you know, let’s say you’re an LGBTQ kid and you’re looking for help online or you’re googling some stuff to kind of work through your sexuality, but you haven’t discussed that with your parents or anyone at school and that gets flagged by the school. That seems like you could put children in a very difficult and uncomfortable position.

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S3: Yeah, I’ve talked to privacy experts who said, like, what if a kid’s googling something about their identity that they’re not ready to share yet? And administrators and teachers see that it could either influence their perception of the kid or their behavior toward the kid, or put the kid in the position of of having to, you know, explain themselves in a way they might not be ready for.

S2: When we come back, investors are pouring money into companies like GoGuardian, but Silicon Valley has a pretty bad track record when it comes to disrupting education. GoGuardian is now valued at $1 billion, but it’s certainly not the first educational technology company to attract investors. Silicon Valley has a pretty long and undistinguished list of school related ventures. A lot of them started with fanfare and then fizzled.

S3: Mark Zuckerberg, famously or infamously at this point, put 100 million toward the Newark school system. You know, there were allegations of corruption, and the results were unclear. And there’s lots of debate over whether or not that really was an effective approach at school, which is the company that was founded by a couple of ex Googlers. They raised a bunch of money from bigwigs in Silicon Valley, and they opened up these fancy schools with 3D printers and and billboards and things like that. And then a little while later, they got out of the business of operating schools, started shutting them down. Didn’t really seem to pan out in this kind of revolutionary way. But the difference between all these other things that Silicon Valley has tried and education, all these splashy initiatives is GoGuardian, and companies like it seem to have gotten a lot further in terms of very broad use across the U.S.. I mean, they really have expanded in a way that feels different from some of these other approaches to education that folks in Silicon Valley have taken.

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S2: You have this line in your story that really stuck with me after I read it. And it’s but no one actually knows how well or even if these technologies work. I was just thinking like, what does it mean for this stuff to work, what’s the yardstick?

S3: More than 80 percent of teachers say that their school uses some kind of monitoring to track what kids are doing online among students. That research found that at least 26 percent are not comfortable with it, but the interesting thing is more than 80 percent said they were. They reported being more careful about what I search online when I know what I do online is being monitored, and six in 10 students said that they agree with the statement. I do not share my true thoughts or ideas because I know what I do online is being monitored, which if they know they’re being monitored. But six out of 10 say they’re not sharing how they actually feel, then if the true point is to catch what they’re actually feeling, are we are you getting there? Are you actually is actually working?

S2: Gosh, that’s such a. Conundrum and like fascinating thing that. You know, kids are smart. They’re not the sort of, I don’t know, naive empty vessels that I think sometimes adults mistake them for the other.

S3: The other question is, OK, well, schools can decide whether or not they want to turn on the feature that extends monitoring to personal computers like, you know, if a kid’s using their mom or dad’s laptop at home while logged in to their school account, will GoGuardian track them? Schools decide whether to turn that on. But then the question is, are there schools that don’t turn on the extended monitoring? So are there kids out there who are just using their personal computers instead of their school computers, and therefore on being monitored because their families are well-off enough to get around the fact that their school device is being tracked? Right. And kids who can’t afford another device or whose families can’t afford another device for them to do their schoolwork on are using the school laptop and just being, you know, thus being tracked in a way that the richer kids are. Do rich kids get more privacy?

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S2: You know, when the pandemic began. A big question that that we asked a lot of people last was sort of what happens to to learning if we close the schools. We know some answers to that now. But I wonder about the technological legacies of this pandemic and the technological legacies of how quickly decisions were made. Could you ever see schools going back to a world where this kind of software isn’t used?

S3: It’s hard to see, you know, a world in which schools would abandon this kind of technology, and by all indications, we’ve gotten schools seem to find this useful even in non remote times when kids are in school. In real life, you know, butts in chairs, in the classroom to make sure they’re on track. So it’s hard to imagine a world where the school surveillance state is put back in a box.

S2: Priya Anand. Thank you so much. Thank you. Priya Anand is a technology reporter for Bloomberg, and that is it for the show today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks, were edited by Troy Boche and Alison Benedict, and Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts. TBD is part of the larger What Next family? And it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And I want to recommend that you take a moment to listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next? Mary Harris and Jim Newell talk about whether the Democrats should be freaking out right now. What next? We’ll be back next week. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.