Clear backpacks, monitored emails: life for US students under constant surveillance

Lois Beckett:

For Ingrid, a 15-year-old in La Crosse, Wisconsin, going to high school means being monitored on surveillance cameras in her hallways and classrooms. Students are required to carry their school supplies in clear backpacks, as ordinary backpacks might be used to conceal a weapon, she said. Water bottles must also be clear, so school officials can see the color of the liquid inside. The monitoring continues on the laptops students use in school. Teenagers are warned that the school is tracking what they do, and that they can get in trouble for visiting inappropriate websites.

This level of surveillance is “not too over-the-top”, Ingrid said, and she feels her classmates are generally “accepting” of it.

When it comes to digital surveillance of what they do on school laptops, “I feel like everyone’s adjusted. I don’t think anyone really cares at this point,” Ingrid said. “The subject doesn’t really come up until someone’s gotten in trouble for something. Usually it’s just like, ‘Oh, that person is stupid, looking at what they were doing on a school device. They should have known better.’”

If the school were monitoring anything on her personal cellphone, that would be a privacy violation, Ingrid said. But on her school-issued laptop? “I have no problem with it, because it’s a school device, you know?”

For decades, American school shootings have driven a booming school security industry. Last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead, has helped expand the market for products that allow schools to monitor what students are doing on their computers for signs of violence or self-harm. Tech companies are now offering a range of products that help schools track the websites kids are visiting and the searches they are making; that monitor everything students are writing in school emails, chats and shared documents; or that even attempt to track what students are posting on their public social media accounts.