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Reported School Purchases of Surveillance Software on the Rise, Brennan Center Finds

Using information from the government contracts database SmartProcure, a Brennan Center analysis and map show more school district purchases of social media monitoring technology, with Texas, Illinois, Florida, and California leading the pack.

April 30, 2019

Using information from the government contracts database SmartProcure, Brennan Center analysis and map show more school district purchases of social media monitoring technology, with Texas, Illinois, Florida, and California leading the pack.

MEDIA CONTACT: Mireya Navarro; Mireya.Navarro@nyu.edu; 646 925 8760 

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law today released an analysis with accompanying map of purchases of surveillance software, showing that schools across the country are reporting spending more to monitor students’ use of social media. There's no evidence that this kind of monitoring makes students any safer.

The analysis shows that, in 2018, 63 school districts in 20 states purchased monitoring software that trawls children’s social media posts, blogs, forums and other online activity, up from just six in 2013, more than a tenfold increase. Although SmartProcure, the database of government procurement orders, likely depicts only a portion of school spending on these tools, four states stood out as big spenders: Texas ($654K), Illinois ($321K), Florida ($258K), and California ($197K).

The deployment of surveillance technologies in middle schools and high schools appears to be an attempt to prevent incidents of mass violence by flagging signs of worrisome behavior early, Brennan researchers Faiza PatelRachel Levinson-WaldmanJun Lei Lee, and Sophia DenUyl write. Dozens of companies claim they can identify the signs of somebody who may be violent, or have bullying or suicidal tendencies. Law enforcement agencies have used technology from some of these companies to monitor for “threats to public safety.”

But there’s no evidence that their software works. It is more likely to result in wrongly tagging children as violent based on a misinterpretation of what they say online, such as slang and quotes from pop culture, the researchers write. These tools are also likely to disproportionately harm students of color. 

“Schools and school districts should think twice before adopting technologies that promise far more than they can deliver while imposing real costs on the children they are meant to keep safe,” the researchers write. 

“Overall, research shows that as school security measures proliferate, students often feel less safe. And overbroad and unnecessary surveillance is likely to have a detrimental impact on students’ privacy and chill their ability to express themselves.”

 

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to reform, revitalize — and when necessary, defend — our country's systems of democracy and justice.