Schools hire snoopers to monitor kids on social networks. Is it OK? [POLL]

Filed Under: Featured, Privacy, Social networks

School children. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.Are you worried about what your child is up to on social media?

Well, if you live in Southern California, you may have a few extra people watching your child's back.

That's because the Glendale Unified School District is investing $40,000 over the next year to monitor its students' social media activity on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The program was introduced after a 15-year old student committed suicide at Crescenta Valley High School. And what started as a pilot project in three schools last year is now being rolled out to all middle and high schools across the district.

It has enlisted the help of Geo Listening, which describes itself as an "always monitoring" service that keeps an eye out for cyber bullying, truancy and substance abuse, among other things.

The service will listen in on all public posts made on social networks while in the school campus grounds and then produce a daily report ready for school staff to read and react.

Geo Listening is keen to remind us that it's only public posts it listens in on:

All of the individual posts we monitor on social media networks are already made public by the students themselves. Therefore, no privacy is violated."

District Superintendent Dr Richard Sheehan told NBC they're doing it to keep up with new trends:

"With modern technology, unfortunately we have to try and stay a step ahead of the kids,

"We’re not trying to hide anything, because the whole point of this is student safety."

Some parents are supportive of the idea, including Felicia Collins who said, "I think it can nip it in the bud if someone is being attacked or something negative is being said about a student."

But the children are understandably less keen. Some students have started a Facebook page called Remove Your School and as 14-year-old Matilda Sinany said, "I think it’s a bad idea because everybody deserves their privacy."

So is this a good idea? Is it worth it if it can help intervene when there is a problem, or will it encourage bullies to be more sneaky about the ways they pick on other children?

It feels just a bit *too* Big Brother for me - are we going to bring in eavesdroppers in lessons to listen in on conversations between students? Do we need to start having people follow children home in case they stumble across the school bully outside the local shop?

Let us know what you think in our poll below and leave a comment too.

And if you've got children yourself, you might like to show them our top tips to help keep them safe online.

Images of school children and boy on tablet courtesy of Shutterstock.

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32 Responses to Schools hire snoopers to monitor kids on social networks. Is it OK? [POLL]

  1. I really don't see this being a useful tool since the kids will just reset their privacy settings or move to a different site. I do see possibilities for abuse by the system though to not only monitor for certain behaviors but to also make them part of a student's permanent record on file. Monitoring kids online is the parents' job. Monitoring kids in school is the school's job. Big Brother needs to back off.

  2. John · 735 days ago

    Public post are just that, public. Privacy is not being violated since there is no expectation of privacy in this instance.

  3. Tilghman Lesher · 735 days ago

    As long as it's treated as a tool to ensure school and student safety ONLY and not as a general law enforcement tool, I have less of a problem with it. Bullying is definitely one of those areas where schools have been found to have vicarious liability when either teachers did know or should have known about bullying and didn't do anything about it. Doing nothing is not a solution to avoid liability, as has been shown many times in many lawsuits. So the question isn't really whether schools may do this, but rather to what degree they ought to do this.

  4. I'm a bit half and half on this.
    Yes, what they post IS public BUT if you want to see it, you have to go look for it.
    Not sure I like the idea of a program monitoring EVERY little thing a kid posts.
    I also believe parents should be monitoring their children, not Big Brother.
    Having said that, many parents just DON'T monitor them, thinking they can be trusted, so I can't say yes or no.

  5. So glad my parents didn't have to worry about this sort of thing when I was a child, and so glad neither did I with my children.

    My brothers and sisters and I just grew up as normal children, and my children all grew up ok too.

  6. Outside the marginals · 735 days ago

    In our litigious society should a school take all reasonable practical steps to monitor to ensure children in their care are not being bullied? If yes, is this proposal reasonable and practical?

    "All of the individual posts we monitor on social media networks are already made public by the students themselves. Therefore, no privacy is violated."

    14-year-old MS said, "I think it’s a bad idea because everybody deserves their privacy."

    There is something very odd here. How can you have expectations of privacy if you are posting your thoughts on the electronic equivalent of a public bill-board?

    I think the school needs to teach their pupils about "privacy" and how to preserve it.

  7. Steve · 735 days ago

    I think that it is wrong except in extreme cases. Accusations of bullying, etc. The kids' parents are the ones who should be monitoring their internet activity. They should also be monitoring their cellphone activity. There are kids out there posting things that could get them into trouble with the law, predators and all the other crazies out there, and most just don't think before they post or send. Parents NEED to keep an eye on their children. Reading the very first line of this article, the answer should be "Then maybe I should find out."

  8. Boboe · 735 days ago

    If the information is public, there is no expectation of privacy.

    Children shouldn't be using social networking services.

    Parents should be monitoring their children's activity.

    Schools have no rights to monitor or control students' behavior off school grounds, however if there's a problem that inhibits the child's safe education while at the school, then the school needs to get the parents involved.

    • Mr Guest · 735 days ago

      The article states schools can/will only monitor their own computers.

  9. Nigel · 735 days ago

    It is typical of the kind of stupidity fostered by the Southern California public school system that one of its 14-year old victims is apparently unable to understand the fact that posting information publicly and demanding that it somehow still remain "private" is a logical contradiction.

    Obviously, the ability to think critically is not a product of her curriculum. She will grow up to vote for people who've made a career of evading the spirit of the law, whom she will then expect to uphold the letter of the law. They will in turn ensure that the public schools continue to manufacture more drones who can't think their way out of a paper bag.

    • Alistair · 735 days ago

      I couldn't have put it better myself.

      But it does also highlight a frightening lack of understanding about how the internet works. Ask the little darling whether she would write her name, bank account information, date of birth, age and address on a post card and send it to a mate through the US mail, and she would probably get that it is a bad idea. Similarly ask her if she would pick up a megaphone and have a 'private' conversation across the food court of a busy shopping mall, and she would probably also get that it wouldn't be smart either.

      For some reason however she lacks the technological awareness to recognise that she is doing the same thing on the internet, and is perplexed when someone 'unintended' is listening.

      Really the school should have a chat with her parents and raise their collective awareness of the risks involved.

    • Jack · 734 days ago

      Let's face it, most of the younger generation doesn't know how much works. Let alone any kind of 'common sense' about anything. It shows everywhere, with people on their phones driving after seeing a commercial about how someone killed a bunch of kids.

      I guess it's lost, I can only hope someone will re-establish the common sense option.


  10. slipstream · 735 days ago

    As long as it's just public posts being looked at, what privacy exists to be violated?!

  11. This is an exceptional idea. They are only reading public posts. kids have no expectation of privacy if they make the post available to the public audience.

  12. If I read the article correctly. It's well within the school's purview to act this way. It seems that they are only monitoring public posts made through their equipment. This is no different from you being monitored and disciplined for inappropriate conduct if you were to access Facebook from work.

  13. Benr · 735 days ago

    I voted no, because in my opinion, it should be the parents job, not the schools.

  14. Dr. No · 735 days ago

    This questions brings up a lot of legal questions. Why would a school need to monitor student's postings on a social media site? Are all students posts monitored? If not then what triggers a students post to be flagged? How long is this information retained? What if the information in the post has other information that is considered PII or PHI? Would the schools be required to meet these regulations as well? As an agent of the government (which the school is) the laws that allow for gathering of information about US citizens is heavily regulated, even if the information is open source. Government agencies cannot simply gather information about citizens. Truancy and drug use do not permit agents to violate a citizen's forth amendment rights. If this were the case police could show up and demand to search your house based on what is posted on social media sites such as music preferences in Spotify,ie this student likes Bob Marley or Sublime they must use drugs, so bring in the dogs and cuff them.

  15. Cerdo · 735 days ago

    I feel that the monitoring of public posts seems reasonable enough; but who is paying for this? In the age of massively increasing, wasteful spending by Government agencies who continue to expand their powers without the blessing of the Constitution, is it really reasonable for a public school system to spend $40,000 of their budget snooping on kids' activities out of school? Or do they think (hope) that this can reduce truancy, increasing their "average daily attendance", and therefore recoup their costs by getting increased money from the state? Either way, it reeks of the wasteful spending that put California (and the U.S. as a whole) into the deficit that we find ourselves in.

  16. Paul · 735 days ago

    Can't wait to see reports of kids working together to generate a bunch of "public" but false posts on social networks with the intention of creating a response from administration. Practical jokes will leave school resources chasing their tails and not being able to differentiate between real incidents and those that are contrived for the sake of driving school officials nuts.

  17. I work in IT at a high school, and last year alone incidents involving social media rose over 60%. Snooping is not going to do anything. A school cannot enforce rules for something that it does not own, operate, or maintain. They can only take action if social media activity took place while the child was in school when the incident happened. What they SHOULD do, is tight up their policies on mobile devices that enable to kids to participate in social media activity while on school premises.

  18. abeastwood · 735 days ago

    Long ago, before the internet and Facebook, my grandfather, who was a country Justice of the Peace, told me "Never put anything in writing that you would not want to appear in court". That is probably still pretty good advice.

  19. David · 735 days ago

    As long as schools and teachers are being held responsible for cyberbullying that happens off campus this is a reasonable measure to protect the district and the students. They are public posts after all.

  20. Dan · 734 days ago

    They should be monitoring the teachers over the students

  21. Rich · 734 days ago

    So with anecdotal evidence that a 14-year old doesn't really understand the issues of privacy on Facebook the common response is, "they can't expect privacy if they don't set it up". Sounds like applying a rule that's adequate for adults to children. Children aren't adults and need more protection.

    Train the parents to monitor their children's public postings.

    And when did any monitoring system ever remain used only for its stated purpose?

  22. Tony · 734 days ago

    Its only a matter of time before some school district will be sued because it didn't intervene in some social media situation that escalated. The parent will clam the school was negligent in its supervisory responsibility to do what should have been the parents job in the first place.

  23. A Mom · 734 days ago

    To me this isn't so much a matter of privacy as there really isn't any degree of complete privacy on the Internet anyway. Also, since they are monitoring their own network, this isn't a privacy issue at all. The network belongs to the school (well, taxpayers) and the school computers belong to the school (again, taxpayers). Even if personal devices are brought in, they are still using the school's network, in which case, there shouldn't be any expectation of privacy.

    It's the same in the workplace. Whatever I do on my company's network is their business and I should expect no level of privacy on their network. Instead, this is another example of people making themselves feel better/safer by attempting to do something - even if that something won't necessarily give them the intended result. So they don't make nasty posts or talk about the "real" stuff going on - they just wait until they are at home or on a different network.

  24. A Mom · 734 days ago

    I think my biggest problem with this is that once more, we are taking what should be the role of parents - and by that I mean actually being involved in their lives and paying attention to behavior, Internet activity, etc., etc. - and transferring it to a "governmental" body. If I were in this school district, my parenting role wouldn't change - I would still be involved in my kids' lives, ask questions, monitor Internet activity, monitor overall behavior, attitude, etc.

    My fear is that this will give the parents who don't care, are inept at certain parenting responsibilities, aren't techncially inclined themselves, or just don't know how to be involved with their children a false sense of security in that "Big Brother" will watch their kids activity for them and will intervene when necessary.

    I just don't think this is going to give them the intended result. And I do agree with Tony that there are lawsuits just waiting to happen.

  25. Freida Gray · 734 days ago

    The only thing that "monitoring your own network " affects is the off-line activity not the on-line activity.What the student posts from home to their social media accounts still shows up on the school's computers because on-line activity crosses network boundaries.
    The problem to me seems to be who will determine whether or not the posted material is bullying or in some other way a violation of school policy?

  26. Common sense · 734 days ago

    Another example of the nanny state trying to dictate how children are to be raised. It is the responsibility of the parents to monitor their child online or offline. Little by little the state encroaches into the raising of the next generation so as to groom them to into the perfect consumer who is just smart enough to operate the machinery of commerce without paying attention to who is at the controls.

  27. Vito · 734 days ago

    The poll question is pretty vague. How can any responsible person decide whether "it's OK" before knowing exactly what the school system will DO with the information they gather at taxpayer's expense? Does anyone even know? And if they did, would everyone agree?

    Unless those who pay for the schools want their kids' posts monitored, then it's not right. Some parents will want it, and some won't. Why can't the parents who want that kind of monitoring do it themselves? I asked my wife that question, and her answer pegged the sarcasm meter: "Parents getting involved in their children's lives? How could you even suggest such a thing?!", right. My mistake.

    There's no question that it's going to cost the schools more money to do it, and...BAM!! -- up go the taxes. Why should those who take responsibility for their own kids (or who don’t even have kids) be forced to pay for it? Because that's the way the state school system works. You don't have to like it. You just have to pay for it. You don't have a choice. And you can't fire them for manufacturing mental midgets who post in public yet expect it to remain “private”.

  28. in favor · 734 days ago

    I voted in favor.
    If (as has happened) the school is held partly or wholly responsible (deeper pockets to sue), then I believe the school not only has the right but the need to be apprised of what is transpiring on their property and equipment. Yes, an off site server could be used but then this should absolve the school as they would have no knowledge and this puts the onus back on the parents (as it should) to monitor online activity.

  29. Ya'll are gonna keep saying no, and that's fine: in principal, it's wrong, and shady, and robs kids of an important privacy.


    This is something they need to know, NOW. Before they start looking for jobs.... you shouldn't be competing with your friends to see who can add the most randos on your facespace, you shouldn't be adding people you don't know; one of them might be your new boss, no matter how hot that chick's picture is, it could also be a shady dick.

    And you really, really shouldn't make anything public. Maybe an extremely innocuous photo of you in a suit, holding a sign that says "I agree with all the opinions of my future employer" and everything else is private.... Because, kids, this doesn't stop. grownups don't stop snooping on you, not now, and not when you're 25, and not when your 60. (I work in IT and I seriously facebook lookup almost every caller who calls out of sheer curiosity)

    Lock it down, kids. Learn your lesson now, because let me tell you, a week of no gameboy sure would piss me off as bad or worse than it would piss you off, but it's nowhere near as bad as not getting a job, and having no idea it's because your boss doesn't like bisexuals/people who like noise rock/people who say on facebook they are liberal agnostics.

    Cover your butts!

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About the author

Anna Brading is Naked Security's editor. She has worked in tech for more than ten years and as a writer with Sophos for over five. She's interested in social media, privacy and keeping people safe online.