‘Big Brother’ is watching (spying) students online activity


Schools are increasingly confronting a controversial question: Should they do more to monitor students’ online interactions off-campus to protect them from dangers such as bullying, drug use, violence and suicide?

This summer, the Glendale school district in suburban Los Angeles captured headlines with its decision to pay a tech firm $40,500 to monitor what middle and high school students post publicly on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.  

The school district went with the firm Geo Listening after a pilot program with the company last spring helped a student who was talking on social media about “ending his life,” company CEO Chris Frydrych told CNN’s Michael Martinez in September.

“We were able to save a life,” said Richard Sheehan, the Glendale superintendent, adding that two students in the school district had committed suicide the past two years.

“It’s just another avenue to open up a dialogue with parents about safety,” he said.

The Glendale school district is not alone. David Jones, president of the firm Safe Outlook Corporation, said two school districts and three schools pay, on average, between $4,000 to $9,000 per year for one of his technology products called CompuGuardian and that he expects the number of schools participating to go up. (Jones said he was not at liberty to reveal which schools work with his company.)

His product gives schools access to, among other things, reporting tools that allow users to search key words connected to cyberbullying and drug use, and to see whether students are researching topics about dangers such as school violence.

“You can identify a student, and you can jump into their activity logs and see exactly what they’ve typed, exactly where they’ve gone, exactly what they’ve done, and it gives you some history that you can go back to that child and use some disciplinary action,” Jones said. “You can bring in the parent and say, ‘Hey, look, this is what your child’s doing. You need to talk to them about it.’ ”

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, the school superintendents association, said it’s “not always clear” legally what can be done and what is within the scope of the district’s authority.

“In one state, the court will support the district and say, ‘absolutely, you have the right to do that.’ In a very similar situation in another court, the court will rule ‘absolutely not, it’s freedom of speech,’ ” Domenech said. “So the whole legal issue right now is very much up in the air.”

How much to monitor students’ social media is not just an issue fraught with logistical and legal challenges. There is also the court of public opinion, which leans heavily to the “schools are overreaching” side of the equation, according to comments we received on CNN’s Facebook page.

“Schools need to respect boundaries and the First Amendment,” Tom Gayda, who is director of student publications for an Indianapolis high school, wrote in an e-mail.

“Kids needs to be free to say (something) without feeling like the school is watching them 24/7,” Gayda later said in an interview. “My concern is if a kid goes home and writes ‘the school lunch sucks,’ and the next day they’re brought in and in trouble for complaining about school food.”


Data brokers’ collection of internet activity data raises privacy issues:

The collection of individual data by so-called Big Data brokers goes well beyond your online shopping.

Those companies — there were 253 of them as of this past March, according to a directory compiled by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse — collect and sell information to marketers on everything from your marital status, whether you might be pregnant or have a newborn, have cancer, are trying to lose weight, are gay or straight, how much you make, what credit cards you use, your lines of credit, where you live, what your house cost, what kind of car you drive or if you might be looking to buy a new one, your race, occupation, political leanings, education level, have one or more children in college, have pets to what your hobbies are and more — much more.

The cliché is that data brokers know more about you than you know about yourself.

But this, according to those brokers, is a very good thing for you, the consumer. One major broker, Acxiom, which has been very much in the news over the past month for allowing consumers to view a portion of the data it collects on them through a new portal — AboutTheData.com — is using that higher visibility to assure people that not only is this collection harmless, but it also brings them a host of economic and other benefits.

The company did not respond to a request for an interview, but Rochelle Sherman, writing on Acxiom’s AboutTheData.com blog, contended that one major benefit is that online advertising is much less irritating — free of “full-page pop ups and big flashing ads.” When “responsible, data-driven marketers” use big data effectively, “the experience doesn’t feel creepy or intrusive — it fits into our lives,” she wrote.

The results of more and more data, she said, include lower prices, free online content, advertising that is much more relevant to individuals, quicker and easier transactions, niche products you might not otherwise be able to find and “what you want when you want it.”

In a post for New Republic, Rosenzweig said he found Acxiom’s information on him, “interesting, illuminating, and mundane.” In some cases, he wrote, the data were wildly inaccurate — it said he had spent only $1,898 in past two years. It got his ethnic heritage and a number of other things wrong.

Rosenzweig concluded that nothing he found surprised him, “and the level of detail was only somewhat discomfiting. In fact, what struck me most forcefully was (to borrow a phrase from Hannah Arendt) the banality of it all.”

In an interview, Rosenzweig said the depth of the data could become intrusive at some point, “but at the level I’ve seen, it’s trivial,” he said, adding that even if data brokers have incorrect information, there is little danger from it. “I think that the audit and oversight mechanisms we have in place — seen in the IRS scandal — make it (damage to individuals) unlikely to happen, and likely to be found out if it does,” he said.

Acxiom collects 1,500 data points on hundreds of millions of people — estimates range from 190 million to 700 million — and consumers have very little control over limiting that collection or its use.

They also note that Acxiom is only one of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of firms that collect data on people. Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum (WPF), compliments Acxiom for, “a positive first step in opening this portal.”


(VIDEO) ‘Five Eyes’ the NSA & private U.S. contractors spying on five countries databases:


One thought on “‘Big Brother’ is watching (spying) students online activity

  1. Sheriff says social media monitoring (spying) helps investigations:

    The software, named Snaptrends (http://snaptrends.com/), gathers information from social media profiles by scanning for keyswords or phrases. The information is then compiled for investigators who are looking into possible crime trends in certain areas. The software only gathers data from profiles that can be seen by the general public.

    Sherriff Richard Wiles said since the advent of the Internet and the increase in social media, law enforcement officials across the country regularly gather information in order to predict potential problems, such as riots, demonstrations, prostitution and drug sales. He said the software only searches for information that is openly posted on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Backpage.

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