Students on School-Issued Devices Are Under Constant Surveillance

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Anne Dennon
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Anne Dennon covers higher education trends, policy, and student issues for BestColleges. She has an MA in English literature and a background in research strategy and service journalism....
Published on Oct 01, 2021
Updated Nov 10, 2021
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  • Federal law requires public schools to protect children using the internet.
  • Today, surveillance software tracks millions of K-12 and college students.
  • Surveillance can silence students and punish those from over-policed groups.

When COVID-19 shuttered K-12 schools and college campuses in March 2020, many students were issued laptops and tablets in a bid to prevent the digital divide between high- and low-income students from widening. As the pandemic stretches into the final quarter of 2021, that technology continues to see widespread use among students as courses, testing, and tutoring go hybrid or continue to be administered online.

But the technology that has kept students learning throughout the pandemic has also led to increased surveillance to maintain academic integrity and protect students from harmful content.

Now, a growing body of research warns that such surveillance is negatively affecting student behavior. Studies also indicate that surveillance disproportionately harms students from historically excluded communities.

The balance of privacy with safety and security is a precarious one for schools, which must comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Passed in 2000, the federal law requires public schools to block children's access to obscene or harmful web content in order to combat suicide, gun violence, bullying, and pornography use.

But as the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology for learning, a new crop of software allows schools to proctor tests remotely, track students' attention in remote classes, and even monitor students' social media accounts.

The most widely used software in schools scans billions of social media posts, emails, and web pages. It then uses artificial intelligence to identify potential harm. For instance, Social Sentinel scans social media posts against certain words and phrases and then uses AI to identify potential threats of violence and suicide.

Gaggle, a student surveillance service that comes inside school-issued Google and Microsoft accounts, digitally monitors students 24 hours a day, using a combination of AI and human content moderators to track internet activity, filter images for pornography, and check what students write against a "blocked word list."

While a 2019 Pew Research Center report found that 79% of Americans are concerned about how much of their data is collected by companies and 64% are concerned about data collection by the government, new data shows they feel differently when it comes to young people.

A September 2021 report by the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) found that 66% of teachers and 62% of parents believe the benefits of monitoring students' online activity outweigh the risks, including loss of privacy.

Students' Behavior Changes Under Surveillance

In 2016, a National Association of State Boards of Education report warned that surveillance can make students uncomfortable and afraid of voicing their opinions. Now, a new CDT report, "Online and Observed: Student Privacy Implications of School-Issued Devices and Student Activity Monitoring Software" is quantifying the negative impacts of digital surveillance on students' well-being.

"Systematic monitoring of online activity can reveal sensitive information about students' personal lives, such as their sexual orientation, or cause a chilling effect on their free expression, political organizing, or discussion of sensitive issues such as mental health," said CDT in a letter to federal lawmakers on September 21, 2021, along with other advocacy organizations.

Students and young people reported becoming more reserved when they knew they were being watched, according to the CDT. Fifty-three percent of students surveyed said they don't share their true thoughts or ideas online because they are being monitored, and 77% said they were more careful about what they search online.

In CDT's survey of K-12 teachers, 81% reported that their school uses student monitoring software. Of these, 30% said the tracking is always on. The data led Elizabeth Laird, director of Equity in Civic Technology at CDT, to issue a stark warning in an interview with The 74: "Youth are being primed to accept surveillance as an inevitable reality."

Digital Surveillance Zooms In on Historically Excluded Students

Increased surveillance of students may also worsen long-term disparities and academic progress for students of color, according to an April 2021 report.

In "The Infrastructure of Social Control: A Multi-Level Counterfactual Analysis of Surveillance, Punishment, Achievement, and Persistence," Jason Jabbari, a data analyst for the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis and Odis Johnson, an education professor and the executive director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, used federal longitudinal data to look at surveillance and its effects on more than 6,000 students in high schools nationwide. They found that students attending high-surveillance high schools are more likely to be subjected to in-school suspension and have lower math achievement than those at low-surveillance schools. They are also less likely to attend college. Likewise, Black students are four times more likely to attend a high-surveillance school.

The CDT sent similar warnings to lawmakers in the open letter to congress. The Center warned that the "harms" of student surveillance "likely fall disproportionately on already vulnerable, over-policed, and over-disciplined communities."

For their part, college students are largely complacent about their data collection. According to a survey conducted over the summer by Inside Higher Ed, College Pulse, and Kaplan, only 22% of students believed they could restrict access to their data. Sixty-nine percent weren't sure.

Students who choose to opt out (or in) differ systematically — women are more likely to respond than men, and white students are more likely to respond than Black students — leading to consent bias.

Feature Image: PhotoAlto / Alix Minde / PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections / Getty Images is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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