Considering that Silicon Valley is deemed a pillar of technological strength, it should be expected that this model of technological integration would translate to a well-grounded, secure surveillance system, especially in the field of education.
However, many students and professionals have voiced concerns about the Valley’s surveillance policies and programs, especially in the Palo Alto Unified School District, which has implemented many district-wide monitoring tools built into browsers and school devices such as the recently distributed Chromebooks.
According to the district, their security methods serve to disrupt student access to websites deemed inappropriate for educational use to in order to better create a learning environment. However, these programs have also have been able to track complete student activity on forums such as social media, almost without any form of restriction.
The Tracks of PAUSD
Unassuming and in fine print, the words, “no expectation of privacy” are carefully nestled in the pages of Palo Alto High School’s technology agreement handbook. A critical and often overlooked facet of the district’s student technology policy, the message sends a quiet warning to all its users.
According to PAUSD security manager Ignacio Padilla, this policy gives the right to the district to collect and review all activity on the school-issued Chromebooks: social media, online chat room communications, emails sent and received, sites that were visited, and softwares downloaded.
“We have searched student accounts,” Padilla says. “Searches are typically triggered if we have received a request from teachers or administrators. What we are specifically looking for differs case by case.”
The Paly handbook’s lack of specificity in the identification of perpetrators is what allows PAUSD full jurisdiction over all degrees of technology misuse. These searches can be carried out at any time considered suitable without notice to the student.
Under what the handbook classifies as activity having “no educational value and to [being] potentially harmful to students,” everything from trivial misconduct, such as playing online games, to more severe offenses like accessing pornographic material all falls under the policy.
Many students, like sophomore Ori Katz, don’t see eye-to-eye with the district regarding the ethics of such thorough surveillance.
“I think it’s a pretty obvious invasion of privacy,” Katz says. “I understand that they [the school] want to make sure that kids are on topic and they aren’t going on websites they shouldn’t be on, but the school shouldn’t have access to stuff that detailed.”
As a solution, Katz advises against surveillance at the district-level.
“When there’s worktime in class teachers should monitor and come around once in a while to make sure their students are being productive and if they’re not, it’s their own loss,” Katz says. “It’s not a solution to just go and look at exactly what the kids are doing.”
However, the stretch of PAUSD’s online surveillance reaches beyond the scope of chromebooks and to a much broader audience across Palo Alto schools: enter Student Wireless, the primary internet server designated for student use.
Student Wireless has the ability to geolocate students’ whereabouts when connected to the wifi, a common but widely unknown capability of wireless networking systems, according to Padilla.
“[The district] tracks what device was connected to a certain point to see when the event happened and who was on that server at the time,” Paly Internet Technology worker Neeraj Chand says. According to Chand, this technology was used to catch someone posting on behalf of principal Kim Diorio, as well as to track stolen property.
Securly: The future of school monitoring programs?
Among the many Web-based security programs PAUSD has implemented over the years, not many have sparked controversy within the district at the same level as Securly, a Silicon Valley startup founded in 2012 whose program was implemented into the district in 2017.
Securly aims to create a safe and cohesive learning environment for students by acting as a cloud-based extension on the Chrome browser, which tracks student activity whilst on the browser, and reports any potentially harmful online behavior, according to Securly’s informational website. What sets Securly apart from conventional web monitoring tools used in educational facilities is that a regular tool would outright block non-educational websites such as those alluding to social media, while Securly instead takes a more liberal approach.
Instead of blocking social media altogether, Securly instead offers a flagging algorithm for social media posts which can determine with relative accuracy whether the content contains anything suggestive of ‘harmful’ activities such as potential suicides, according to Bharath Madhusudan, one of the co-founders of Securly.
“Most schools block Facebook and Twitter for students,” Madhusudan says. “As a first step towards nudging schools away from this practice, Securly was the first and only web filtering company to introduce the notion of a take home policy which allowed schools to set a more relaxed policy away from campus.”
Madhusudan explains that Securly monitors students’ social networking posts, surveying for negativity including self-harm and bullying.
“As a result, the 99 percent of kids who use these media for positive outcomes do so unimpeded. While those amongst your community who might be in need of help get timely intervention from an adult,” Madhusudan says.
Derek Moore, PAUSD’s chief technology officer, says that the program was initially put in place in the district in response to parent feedback during information nights as many parents worried that the school issued Chromebooks made available to sophomores and juniors were acting less as educational tools and more as distractions for students.
Securly’s built in “parent dashboard” also allows parents to check in on all of their child’s online activity under certain circumstances.
“Parents do not have visibility into browsing traffic for their children while at school, only when the students are using the device off campus“ Moore says.
Katz also states that one of the primary reasons for student opposition against Securly is the fact that few are fully aware of the policies.
“I didn’t know. Not enough people know about the fact that kids are being watched and monitored,” Katz says. “Kids are not being told what’s being done. The chromebooks are just a way for parents and teachers to find out exactly what kids are doing on the laptops.”
While the parent tracking feature Securly offers may be restricted, its existence serves as a silent warning for those who assume they can browse without regulation and oversight. Regardless of this fact, some students still remain wary of potential parental and district involvement in the students’ online affairs.
“It’s an invasion of privacy,” Katz says. “Even if they have your well-being in interest and they have good intentions for you, it’s still an invasion of privacy especially because a lot of the kids being monitored don’t know they’re being monitored.”