How student surveillance fails everyone: Lock and Code S03E23

How student surveillance fails everyone: Lock and Code S03E23

Last month, when Malwarebytes published joint research with 1Password about the online habits of parents and teenagers today, we spoke with a Bay Area high school graduate on the Lock and Code podcast about how she spends her days online and what she thinks are the hardest parts about growing up with the Internet. And while we learned a lot in that episode—about time management, about comparing one’s self to others, and about what gets lost when kids swap in-person time with online time—we didn’t touch on an increasingly concerning issue affecting millions of children and teenagers today: Student surveillance.

Nailing down the numbers on the use of surveillance technologies in schools today is nearly impossible, as the types and the capabilities of student surveillance software are many. 

There’s the surveillance of students’ messages to one another in things like emails or chats. There’s the surveillance of their public posts, on platforms like Twitter or Instagram. There are even tools that claim they can integrate directly with Google products, like Google Docs, to try to scan for worrying language about self-harm, or harm towards others, or drug use. There’s also surveillance that requires hardware. Facial recognition technology, paired with high-resolution cameras, is often sold with the promise that it can screen school staff and visitors when they approach a building. Some products even claim to detect emotion in a person’s face. Other software, when paired with microphones that are placed within classrooms, claims to detect “aggression.” A shout or a yelp or a belting of anger would, in theory, trigger a warning from these types of monitoring applications, maybe alerting a school administrator to a problem as it is happening.

All of these tools count when we talk about student surveillance, and, at least from what has been publicly reported, many forms are growing. 

In 2021, the Center for Democracy and Technology surveyed teachers in K through 12 schools and simply asked if their schools used monitoring software: 81 percent said yes. 

With numbers like that, it’d be normal to assume that these tools also work. But a wealth of investigative reporting—upon which today’s episode is based—reveals that these tools often vastly over-promise their own results. If those promises only concerned, say, drug use, or bullying, or students ditching classes, these failures would already cause concern. But as we explore in today’s episode, too many of schools buy and use this software because they think it will help solve a uniquely American problem: School shootings.

Today’s episode does not contain any graphic depictions of school shootings, but it does discuss details and the topic itself.

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School Surveillance Zone, The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU
Student Activity Monitoring Software Research Insights and Recommendations, Center for Democracy and Technology
With Safety in Mind, Schools Turn to Facial Recognition Technology. But at What Cost?,  EdSurge
RealNetworks Provides SAFR Facial Recognition Solution for Free to Every K-12 School in the U.S. and Canada, RealNetworks
Under digital surveillance: how American schools spy on millions of kids, The Guardian
Facial recognition in schools: Even supporters say it won’t stop shootings, CNET
Aggression Detectors: The Unproven, Invasive Surveillance Technology Schools Are Using to Monitor Students, ProPublica
Why Expensive Social Media Monitoring Has Failed to Protect Schools, Slate
Tracked: How colleges use AI to monitor student protests, The Dallas Morning News
Demonstrations and Protests: Using Social Media to Gather Intelligence and Respond to Campus Crowds, Social Sentinel
New N.C. A&T committee will address sexual assault, Winston-Salem Journal
BYU students hold ‘I Can’t Breathe’ protest on campus, Daily Herald
Thrown bagels during MSU celebration lead to arrests, Detroit Free Press

Show notes and credits:

Intro Music: “Spellbound” by Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
Outro Music: “Good God” by Wowa (