Public schools

School Paid Ex-FBI Agent $157,000 to Spy on Kids' Facebook Pages

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Watchmen
Rob Speed / Flickr

Remember that bizarre news item about a school district deciding to monitor its students' Facebook accounts on advice from the NSA? Alabama.com pursued the story and discovered that the district paid $500,000 over the last two years to several employees at a consulting firm tasked with handling cyber surveillance. That figure includes $157,000 for Chris McCrae, a former FBI agent and security expert.

When administrators monitor students' private, non-school, online activities, who is harmed? Mostly black kids, as it turns out:

On Oct. 30, Huntsville City Schools provided records showing the system expelled 305 students last year. Of those, 238 were black.

That means 78 percent of all expulsions involved black children in a system where 40 percent of students are black. Expulsions related to social media investigations through the SAFe program were a small part of that total. Of those 14 expulsions related to SAFe, 86 percent involved black students.

Some people think those numbers are evidence of deliberate racial profiling on the part of the watchers. (For what it's worth, the only black member of the school board, Laurie McCaulley, suggested that perhaps more black students were up to no good than white students.)

The system relies on a network of snooping: Teachers, administrators, parents, and students are supposed to watch out for online postings about guns, drugs, and gang activity, and then inform the security team. It's easy to see why that kind of thing could be abused. And in fact, a local civics association activist believes McCrae's gang is monitoring her as well:

Jeannee Gannuch, co-founder of the South Huntsville Civic Association, said after the online program came to light, she noticed T&W was following her civic group on Facebook. Gannuch, who has at times been critical of city officials, said she blocked the consulting firm.

"My tax dollars are paying for a hired hand to watch a political organization? That doesn't seem right," said Gannuch.

School security forces should at least restrict their Orwellian spying networks to activities that happen during school hours, within school walls.