Pandemic Policy Turned Schools Into Surveillance States

Cameras and tracking technology purchased to battle COVID-19 will be a lingering affliction.


Even before the pandemic, creeping surveillance was making the open campus a thing of the past. Exaggerated security fears intersected with the declining cost of technology to turn many schools into panopticons. ID tags tracked students, cameras watched their behavior, and software monitored their online activity. Then COVID-19 appeared and safety at all costs became a driving consideration, leaving a Big brother-ish legacy that will linger in public schools long after the virus has been forgotten.

In December 2020, in the midst of pandemic panic, education publication The 74 warned of a "massive ecosystem of products that have flooded the school-safety market this year as education leaders work to mitigate the pandemic's enduring disruptions to student learning."

"Student tracking badges, surveillance cameras and contact-tracing cell phone apps have come under significant scrutiny from privacy advocates, who question the products' effectiveness and accuse them of subjecting youth to over-the-top surveillance," author Mark Keierleber added. "But company executives and school leaders who've bought the products say they are here to stay."

As was the case elsewhere in society, pandemic fears overwhelmed civil libertarian concerns about privacy with public health arguments that prioritized limiting the spread of disease. Companies that ran into headwinds peddling surveillance products in normal times eagerly latched onto concerns about contagion to market their products.

"As offices and schools around the country plan to reopen, the Volan system offers the only private location tracking and geo-fencing option available that provides [a] precise and fast contact tracing solution combined with emergency response capabilities," boasted Volan Technology, which sells tracking badges among other things, in June 2020. 

Volan touts the use of artificial intelligence to ease contact tracing and social-distancing enforcement. That's a feature also included in the modern incarnations of surveillance cameras, which claim the ability to not just monitor hallways and classrooms, but even to automatically identify what the lenses see.

"Motorola Solutions—whose security and communications systems are already installed in thousands of schools around the country—has developed artificial intelligence compatible with its existing cameras to recognize when an individual isn't wearing a mask," The Wall Street Journal reported in August 2020. 

For camera vendors, contact-tracing became a new way to sell facial recognition systems that would (theoretically) identify people believed to have been exposed to COVID-19. Facial recognition is deservedly controversial because of concerns about misidentification, intrusiveness, and security breaches. But public-health priorities steamrolled civil libertarian arguments without actually addressing them. In the end, repurposing existing security technology to address pandemic worries turned out to be an opportunity that paid off in big bucks.

"The US market for physical security equipment in K-12 (kindergarten to 12th grade) and higher education was worth $716 million in 2020," according to the Security Industry Association. "This includes revenues generated by sales of video surveillance, access control and intruder alarm equipment and is measured at factory gate prices. The K-12 education market is estimated to account for around 56 percent of the total market in 2020, an equipment revenue opportunity of $405 million."

Not that repurposed surveillance technology is a panacea. Unsurprisingly, tools that had always proven to be fallible demonstrated similar flaws, and some new ones, when put to public-health use.

"In Fulton county [Georgia], school officials wound up disabling the face mask detection feature in cafeterias because it was triggered by people eating lunch," The Guardian reported this week. "Other times, it identified students who pulled their masks down briefly to take a drink of water. In suburban Houston…when white students wore light-colored masks, for example, the face detection sounded alarms. And if students rode bikes to school, the cameras flagged their elevated temperatures."

But all of that surveillance technology remains in place even as pandemic concerns wane across the country. Badges and cameras purchased at considerable expense aren't going to be put into storage just because COVID-19 fades into the background. After all, vendors already demonstrated the ability to reprogram software and repurpose technology to address concerns of the moment once; why wouldn't they do it again? Administrators hope "to soon equip Fulton county campuses with AI-enabled cameras that identify students who bring guns to school" The Guardian adds.

And, of course, the federal government is right there to subsidize schools' purchase of surveillance tools with gobs of cash. That makes the transformation of supposed learning environments into entry-level police states surprisingly affordable.

"There are several federal grant programs available to help schools pay for their security needs," according to Security magazine. "These programs include the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act."

Ultimately, resistance to the classroom panopticon has to come from parents and students. Encode Justice is a youth-driven group questioning the use of artificial intelligence in a variety of contexts, including school surveillance. Parents in Dearborn, Michigan, are pushing back against surveillance proposals by school officials, voicing worry that distrust and monitoring are being normalized. Families in Wisconsin sued over hidden cameras in their kids' high school. And former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo barred the use of facial recognition in the state's schools after the New York Civil Liberties Union took officials to court.

"It really does impact kids' perspectives about schools, whether they're safe, whether they're themselves perceived as suspects, when they come to school," Odis Johnson Jr., executive director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told WDET. "Those things then relate to feelings of school connectedness, belongingness, trust."

But perhaps the best of way of keeping children from marinating in a surveillance state is to empower families to choose the education environments that work for them. Those environments can involve preferred curricula, learning schedules, and teaching philosophy, but also respect for privacy and liberty when that's what students and their parents value. Those who like to be tagged and monitored should be just as free to pick institutions that cater to their quirks as are families who want their kids to thrive beyond the watchful gaze of Big Brother.