Public schools

Schools Are Spying on Students' Social Media and Informing Police

In the name of cyberbullying and suicide prevention, unintended consequences are not being considered.

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The social monitoring software known as

Cyberspying
Ocusfocus/Dreamstime.com

Snaptrends is being increasingly used by public school districts as a tool to prevent cyberbullying, suicide, and violence.

But how much monitoring of students is too much? And where does a school's jurisdiction over its students end? And for how long should a student's social media history follow them around? Few are asking these questions, relying instead on the "safety first" argument. 

The chairman of the school board in Orange County (Fl.) was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel as saying the use of of the software to snoop on kids was a "no-brainer," adding, "I think we have a moral obligation in every sense of the word to monitor social media for threats to our students or schools." However, the district refused to disclose how the software is used, "citing exemptions in open-records laws regarding security."

You don't have to be Edward Snowden to be concerned that a school having the power of unaccountable surveillance could present opportunities for abuse. Would it be so hard to imagine an antsy kid who's annoying to school administrators facing expulsion over a stray Facebook reference to "weed"? 

In Huntsville (Al.), the school district expelled 14 students as a result of social media investigations in 2014. Though Huntsville's student body is only forty percent African-American, 12 of these 14 students were black, according to AL.com

Karen Turner writes in the Washington Post:

SnapTrends collects data from public posts on students' social media accounts by scanning for keywords that signify cases of cyberbullying, suicide threats, or criminal activity. School security staff then comb through flagged posts and alert police when they see fit.

Bradley S. Shear, a Maryland-based privacy lawyer, told Turner "I think that these companies are preying on the fears of these parents" and not adequately preparing students to "protect their reputation, their privacy and to understand the law." 

There is one state which has actually given some careful consideration to the ramifications of mining and policing the online expression of hormonal and emotionally unbalanced teenagers: California.

In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill which doesn't forbid schools from tracking their students online activity, but it does require them to notify parents of such spying. The law also limits the amount of time schools can store such data to one year. 

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44 responses to “Schools Are Spying on Students' Social Media and Informing Police

  1. The chairman of the school board in Orange County (Fl.) [said] “I think we have a moral obligation in every sense of the word to monitor social media for threats to our students or schools.”

    I think we have a moral obligation in every sense of the word to feed his ass into a, well, you know.

    1. Fun fact, I was walking down a street in my neighborhood this weekend and street crews were working, trimming trees and feeding them into woodchippers. I can no longer look at those things the same way.

    2. He feels obligated to monitor everyone’s thoughts, and who is he to tell him any different.

    3. “our students”

      I think I found the problem.

      1. All your students are belong to us!

  2. SnapTrends collects data from public posts on students’ social media accounts by scanning for keywords that signify cases of cyberbullying, suicide threats, or criminal activity. School security staff then comb through flagged posts and alert police when they see fit.

    Someone hipper to social media trends explain me this: Do these kids hand over their profiles to the school, or does the school suss out who’s profile belongs to which student by simply searching the major social media services, assuming that X account belongs to Y student- either by picture or reputation, then starts monitoring it?

    1. Probably the latter. They start by assuming that the kids use their real names on facebook and probably link out to their other accounts from there.

      1. The enrollment forms probably ask for an email address “to send important notifications to”, and the dumbasses give them their personnel one.

    2. “SnapTrends collects data from public posts on students’ social media accounts by scanning for keywords”

      You mean like this?

      Sporty Student on Social Media:
      “Did you catch the game last night? They absolutely KILLED it. I think [name of player] SHOT more baskets — and made more — than I’ve ever seen him do. That championship is pretty much ours. Our SCHOOL WILL GET IT for sure this year. Cuz our team is da BOMB.”

      School: “RED ALERT! CALL THE SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICER AND FBI! GUN VIOLENCE IMMINENT! DANGER WILL ROBINSON!”

      1. I think the system might flag it and a school “security staff” look at it to deem whether or not it should be passed onto the police. It says this in the article…

        But who the hell talks like that, anyway? I don’t think any kid anywhere is using any the terminology you just used.

        1. Sorry I am not up on the current kid lingo. My point, while phrased tongue-in-cheek, was that there are bound to be thousands upon thousands of false alarms.

          In some ways, that’s a good thing. I hope some smart aleck kids decide to troll the hell out of this. After all, I was under the impression that a school’s authority extends to the edge of the school property. What the hell ever became of parents and their responsibility to their own children? Is the school going to start busting kids for running in the hallway at home? Or for skipping out on family movie night?

    3. does the school suss out who’s profile belongs to which student

      I doubt they put much effort into it.

      “Lessee, we got a John Smith in 4th grade. And lookee here, John Smith just posted pix of the money he stole from a convenience store. We got us a hot one, boys!”

      1. So, it’s like No Fly List, then.

  3. SnapTrends collects data from public posts on students’ social media accounts by scanning for keywords that signify cases of cyberbullying, suicide threats, or criminal activity

    Imagine if they posted the lyrics to certain rap songs? They might score a trifecta. And more!

    There is one state which has actually given some careful consideration to the ramifications of mining and policing the online expression of hormonal and emotionally unbalanced teenagers: California.

    The upside of being the most-retarded state: you possess some slight awareness of just how (@#*$ far people can take things like this.

  4. Once again, the State is the biggest bully of them all.

  5. In all fairness to the schools, they aren’t educating our kids — they need to do SOMETHING.

  6. Well, these students could be using squirt guns at home. Why do libertarians hate the children?

    1. What if some tyke chews his poptart into a gun shape at the breakfast table, and his mom just ignores it instead of freaking out?

      Monitoring social media is not enough! Schools must install cameras at home to monitor student activity 24/7! God forbid they should get distracted by some useless activity like teaching kids and miss some really egregious and dangerous activity like writing stories about hunting dinosaurs with a rifle!

  7. Zuckerturd and his fellow “social media” mavens are the modern real life version of Big Brother.

    To me, the fact that they make most of their fortunes collecting data on behalf of the government under the rubric of being private businessmen makes them even more evil and insidious than the bureaucrats themselves.

    If the average dope on the street in this country had any clue of what was really going on, most of them would shut their accounts down.

      1. I’d bet just about anything you’re on Facebook.

        1. As someone who’s a self-admitted social-network retard (read: I don’t use any of it) the problem isn’t the Kochporashuns, the problem is the government.

        2. I’d bet just about anything you’re on Facebook.

          You would lose, but I do not think that would stop you from making pointless bets.

          1. You would say that, uh…Blustery…Bugger.

  8. “I think we have a moral obligation in every sense of the word to monitor social media for threats to our students or schools.”

    Twenty bucks says this guy thinks the greatest threat of abuse comes from within and his monitoring of the situation mostly involves self-abuse and little kiddies.

  9. I’m struggling a little with accessing people’s public info as “spying”. Unless this program (or the schools) are stealing passwords or looking at posts that are “private”, that much of it strikes me as unexceptional.* Don’t post shit on open platforms on the internet if you don’t want anyone and everyone to see it and use it for their own purposes strikes me as an excellent life lesson.

    Ratting them out to the cops, though . . . .

    *My ignorance of how Tweetface works is, and exactly what the schools are doing here, is almost total.

    1. See my comment above. Hugh replied (a guess) at what they do, and I see it as a reasonable guess. Because honestly, I have no idea how they put X and Y together. Have you ever tried to find someone on facebook? You know how many people share a first and last name? Even names that aren’t super common often come up with 15 or 20 hits so you have to identify them by profile picture– and not everyone uses a profile picture.

      Plus fewer and fewer people are using Facebook, which is… as best as my social-networking experience goes, is possibly the only place where people do use first and last name. Most of the other services people seem to use handles.

      And I agree, ‘spying’ seems like an overly loaded term here. “Monitoring”, yes. Even monitoring in a creepy way is perfectly acceptable. But you’re not spying on me if I put a poster of myself and all my personal details complete with a list of all my friends and nail it up to the light post outside my house.

      1. They don’t have to find random people on Facebook, though. They’re part of the community they’re trying to create a watch list for. So they can talk to faculty and staff who have kids in the school, and just think how many parents are likely to hand over their kids social media handles if the school tells them that they want it “In order to protect your child from *those* people.” Even if you only get a 10 or 20 percent response rate, it’s a tedious but relatively straightforward process to look at the friends lists of those you get responses for and look for cross-links. If the person doing the linking knows many of the students, they can look at pictures and say “Well, the people tagged in this photo are Sharkfin, Weeber, and Bullhead, and I recognize the three kids in the picture, so now I know which handles are likely to belong to those three.” It’s not like the administrator doing the job has to necessarily connect which handle belongs to which kid right away, either. If they figure out “these 120 handles all belong to members of the Freshman class” they can have those handles monitored. As time goes by, they slowly figure out who is who, and if something problematic is flagged before they figure out which kid the handle belongs to, they can turn it over to the cops and let them figure it out.

  10. only forty percent African-American, 12 of these 14 students were black

    Since black kids 10-17 years old are 9X more likely than whites the same age to commit violent crimes and 29X more likely to commit robbery, it sounds like they’re unfairly picking on white kids (assuming each race is equally stupid about posting their criminal activity, which probably isn’t true).

    1. C’mon, Irish. No fair handle-hopping.

    2. 9 times more likely to be arrested ? 9 times more likely to commit

      You are making the opposite mistake of the people who cry “racism”; arrest rates neither prove bias on the part of the police nor underlying criminality

    3. Moreover, the entire state of California (the population in the cited study) is not representative of any locality, whether in California or elsewhere.

      If you took the state and divided it up logically into rural, suburban, and urban regions, you would like find that the arrest rate disparity is much lower in every such region. The over-representation of blacks in urban areas pretty much guarantees Simpson’s Paradox is going to be at play in statewide statistics.

      1. To illustrate:

        Suppose the state had 10 million people. We can divide it into 2 distinct regions. In region A, which has 2 million people, the population is 60% black and the black population has an arrest rate of 10 per 100,000 while the nonblack population has an arrest rate of 5 per 100,000. In region B, the population is 10% black and the black population has an arrest rate of 2 per 100,000 while the nonblack population has an arrest rate of 1 per 100,000.

        There are thus 1.2 million black people in region A and 800,000 black people in region B, making 2 million in the state. The overall arrest rate for black people in this state is thus 6.8 per 100,000. That leaves 800,000 nonblack people in region A and 7.2 million in region B with an overall arrest rate of 1.4 per 100,000.

        In each region of the state, the arrest rate disparity is a factor of 2. Yet for the entire state, the arrest rate disparity is almost a factor of 5.

        But no one lives in “the entire state” — you don’t go to school with people randomly selected from across the state, for the most part. So if your school’s action resulted in an arrest rate disparity of 5, even though that would be consistent for the entire state, that would be inconsistent for any region of the state, so it would be statistically improbable unless the school district straddled a regional border.

      2. FWIW, this type of analysis may reveal (part of) the reason why busing in the 1970s was such a colossal failure. In the example given above, busing black students from region A into schools in region B exacerbates the arrest rate disparity to a factor of 8?10, not only out of line for any region of the state but also for the state as a whole.

        Note also that this analysis makes no assumptions about the false negative and false positive rates of arrest, except that they remain consistent for broadly defined groups of individuals even if they are transplanted.

  11. In loco parentis.

    That horse left the barn long ago. In addition to their primary mission of indoctrinating children to love and fear the state, state-run schools do all sorts of things that parents are supposed to do. E.g., educate kids, feed kids, monitor kids to facilitate healthy development and to prevent behaviors that are harmful to the state interests. Of course, as agents of the state, they’re going to have do such things in ways that no caring parent would, such as random drug testing and routine internet surveillance.

    Government is what we call the things we do together.

    1. Well said.

  12. Schools Are Spying on Students’ Social Media and Informing Police
    In the name of cyberbullying and suicide prevention, unintended consequences are not being considered.

    We all fortunate to live in an informant world
    Spying on school children will only make them get used to Big Brother.
    This way, by the time these kids grow up, being spied on, knowing all about informants will be well ingrained into their psyche and won’t mind the State tyranny that enslaves them.
    Won’t life be wonderful?

  13. Um…

    Schools have no authority over anything that happens off their property, or school sponsored functions.

    Fuck off and die in a fire, slavers.

    The end

    1. Sorry, that was a mess.

      *or that isn’t a school sponsored function.

      The end, the end.

  14. if we can save just one child…

  15. Homeschool your kids. Subjecting them to these tyrants is abusive.

  16. I dunno. If monitoring kids’ online activity results in fewer illiterate bullies in schools, fewer drugs, fewer weapons, less violence — I’m all for it.

    1. fewer illiterate bullies in schools

      They’re monitoring the students, not the administrators and “resource officers”.

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