The surveillance of our youth

Big BrotherLike many school districts, the Southeast Polk School District in Pleasant Hill, Iowa monitors the Web usage of its students on district-provided computers for inappropriate activity. And like some school districts, Southeast Polk also uses a monitoring service that sends weekly emails to parents summarizing their students’ Internet search history. This raises some difficult issues because we know that young people need space away from the heavy thumb of adults for healthy identity formation and the development of self. 

Why do teenagers go to the mall, or congregate at the park, or cruise the strip, or gravitate toward the online spaces where adults aren’t? Because they need spaces that are separate from us. Should we monitor every single book or online resource that our children read? Should we use biometric school lunch checkout systems so that we can see exactly what our children eat for lunch each day? Should we dig through our children’s belongings and rooms every morning after they leave for school to see if they’re doing something that they shouldn’t? Should we install RFID and GPS tags into our children’s clothing and backpacks so that we can track them in real time? Should we slap lifelogging cameras on our kids and review them every evening? Should we install keystroke logging software or monitor everything that youth search for on the Internet? Which of these makes you uncomfortable and which doesn’t?

We can think of numerous reasons why students might search the Internet for things that they don’t want their parents to know about, just like they talk daily about things that they don’t want their parents to know about. For instance, perhaps there is a gay boy who’s struggling to make sense of things but is not ready to come out to his family yet. Or a teenage girl with liberal politics in an ultraconservative family. Or a young couple that is pregnant and searching for information and options before they tell their parents. Or a teen who’s in a spat with a peer but doesn’t want clueless adults stepping in and creating more drama. Or any teen or tween with normal adolescent concerns who just needs some information, resources, or nonlocal empathy and connection. Do these students deserve some space? Do they deserve a presumption of privacy? Or should they immediately and automatically be outed by school software?

danah boyd asks some important questions about youth privacy, including Who has the right to monitor youth? and Which actors continue to assert power over youth? She also notes that:

Just because teens’ content is publicly accessible does not mean that it is intended for universal audiences nor does it mean that the onlooker understands what they see. . . . How do we leverage the visibility of online content to see and hear youth in a healthy way? How do we use the technologies that we have to protect them rather than focusing on punishing them? . . . How do we create eyes on the digital street? How do we do so in a way that’s not creepy?

Similarly, First Monday notes:

The right to privacy is stipulated in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [and] Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as numerous international and regional human rights treaties and conventions [and has been found to be a protected Constitutional right by the U.S. Supreme Court]. The right to privacy essentially protects the integrity of the individual and his or her home, family, and correspondence. A common denominator for the different areas of privacy is access control: thus control over what others know about us; control over private decisions and actions; and control over a physical space. The right to privacy builds on the presumption that a zone of autonomy around the individual is central to individual freedom and self-determination.

Should school districts be complicit in the hypersurveillance of our young people? What messages do we send our students when we monitor their every action and send out weekly reports? Are we creating digital social graphs for our children and then placing them in the hands of commercial vendors? Are we intentionally instituting oppositional and distrustful stances against our own students? Are we fostering the creation of graduates who will shrug at the infringement of their civil liberties as adults because their families and educators have done so for years?

I wonder if there’s an opt out for families that don’t want to Big Brother or helicopter parent their children…

See also

Image credit: Big Brother is watching you, Photon

This is not the answer to cyberbullying

Over at CNN, Francey Hakes opines:

Schools should also monitor cyberbehavior by students. There are good software tools that monitor cyberactivity in real time and flag threats based on keyword libraries that are specific to threatening, bullying, suicidal, or violent language. Every school should have this kind of sophisticated monitoring to capture such behavior.

No, this is not the answer to cyberbullying. America is not a police state. Whether educators like it or not, students have Constitutionally-protected speech and privacy rights. Every individual in the United States, no matter how young, has essential human rights and liberties that are rooted in self-autonomy, privacy, and freedom from invasive searching, tracking, and monitoring by the government.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist and I don’t walk around with a tin foil hat, but the idea of public schools actively monitoring the online speech and behaviors of youth with the intent of catching them doing something bad sends chills up my spine. This is just another classic example of fear run amok…

Internet safety talking points: IT pushback


A lot of people found value in my Internet safety talking points for school leaders, including Cory Doctorow, Bruce Schneier, and Tim Cushing. The post now has been tweeted, liked, pinned, and shared over 1,000 times. I shared a PDF version with superintendents earlier this week. But a school IT employee in Eastern Iowa thought it was ‘adversarial’ and ‘hateful.’

I spoke with her yesterday on the phone for about 30 minutes. She was extremely offended by B, spoke vociferously against Google and Facebook (although her school system is not blocking them), couldn’t wrap her head around E or F, thought G and H were untrue (and didn’t want to hear about the research done by danah boyd and the Berkman Center that is behind those statements), and stated that the Bonus was insulting. Needless to say, our conversation didn’t result in a meeting of the minds. I encouraged her to voice her concerns in the comment area so that we all could have a dialogue but she didn’t think that school IT people read my blog and believed that she would not get a fair shake. Her final statement to me was that she was now worried that her school administrator would be breathing down her neck and asking her more questions about the decisions that she’s making. I responded that I thought that was a good thing since we all need to be regularly reconsidering and reexamining our policies and decision-making in light of both learning and teaching considerations and the rapid changes that are occurring in our information landscape. That’s when she thanked me for the call and decided it was time for us to be done.

The transcript of her voice mail message is below. Any thoughts or reactions to this?

Dr. McLeod, I had hoped I could speak with you directly. You don’t know me but I just read your article on administrators and how they should think about Internet safety and, as a 25-year veteran of IT, I want to say that I’m completely offended. This is just sad that you’re setting up this adversarial relationship between administrators and IT with the tone of your letter here and if you think that’s going to help the situation by getting IT departments angry, because that’s what this article will do. Obviously you’ve got some issues there with filtering. I would be surprised if the University of Kentucky is blocking. We don’t block any of the sites you mention but you’re leaving out a lot of very important things regarding the CIPA law with K-12, regarding E-Rate funding, regarding attacks of viruses, malware – it’s just a really simplistic approach when I look at this. I’m really disappointed in that but I don’t think my voice mail’s probably going to change your idea, I just think that you’d be doing everyone a service to not be having such an angry, resentful type of article like that which does nothing more than put a divide between two departments that, by the way, don’t work for each other, they partner with each other. So I would say you might want to rethink that and maybe even present a different article that’s a little less hateful. Thanks.

26 Internet safety talking points

[UPDATE: A PDF version of these talking points is now available.]

For Leadership Day 2012, I thought I would gather in one place many of the talking points that I use with principals and superintendents about Internet safety…

  1. InternetpadlockEven though they may use fancy terms and know more than you do about their domain, you never would allow your business manager or special education coordinator to operate without oversight. So stop doing so with your technology coordinator.
  2. The technology function of your school organization exists to serve the educational function, not the other way around. Corollary: your technology coordinator works for you, not vice versa.
  3. Mobile phones, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs, Wikispaces, Google, and whatever other technologies you’re blocking are not inherently evil. Stop demonizing them and focus on people’s behavior, not the tools, particularly when it comes to making policy.
  4. You don’t need special policies for specific tools. Just check that the policies you have are inclusive of electronic communication channels and then enforce the policies you already have on bullying, cheating, sexual harassment, inappropriate communication, illicit behavior, etc.
  5. Why are you penalizing the 95% for the 5%? You don’t do this in other areas of discipline at school. Even though you know some students will use their voices or bodies inappropriately in school, you don’t ban everyone from speaking or moving. You know some students may show up drunk to the prom, yet you don’t cancel the prom because of a few rule breakers. Instead, you assume that most students will act appropriately most of the time and then you enforce reasonable expectations and policies for the occasional few that don’t. To use a historical analogy, it’s the difference between DUI-style policies and flat-out Prohibition (which, if you recall, failed miserably). Just as you don’t put entire schools on lockdown every time there’s a fight in the cafeteria, you need to stop penalizing entire student bodies because of statistically-infrequent, worst-case scenarios.
  6. You never can promise 100% safety. For instance, you never would promise a parent that her child would never, ever be in a fight at school. So quit trying to guarantee 100% safety when it comes to technology. Provide reasonable supervision, implement reasonable procedures and policies, and move on.
  7. The ‘online predators will prey on your schoolchildren’ argument is a false bogeyman, a scare tactic that is fed to us by the media, politicians, law enforcement, and computer security vendors. The number of reported incidents in the news of this occurring is zero.
  8. Federal laws do not require your draconian filtering. You can’t point the finger somewhere else. You have to own it yourself.
  9. Students and teachers rise to the level of the expectations that you have for them. If you expect the worst, that’s what you’ll get.
  10. Schools that ‘loosen up’ with students and teachers find that they have no more problems than they did before. And, often, they have fewer problems because folks aren’t trying to get around the restrictions.
  11. There’s a difference between a teachable moment and a punishable moment. Lean toward the former as much as possible.
  12. If your community is pressuring you to be more restrictive, that’s when it’s time to educate, not capitulate. Overzealous blocking and filtering has real and significant negative impacts on information access, student learning, pedagogy, ability to address required curricular standards, and educators’ willingness to integrate technology. It also makes it awfully tough to prepare students for a digital era.
  13. ‘Walled garden’ online environments prevent the occurrence of serendipitous learning connections with the outside world.
  14. If you’re prohibiting teachers from being ‘friends’ with students online, are you also prohibiting them from being ‘friends’ with students in neighborhoods, at church, in volunteer organizations, at the mall, and in other non-school settings?
  15. Schools with mindsets of enabling powerful student learning usually block much less than those that don’t. Their first reaction is ‘how can we make this work?’ rather than ‘we need to keep this out.’
  16. As the lead learner, it’s your responsibility to actively monitor what’s being filtered and blocked and to always reconsider that in light of learning and teaching needs.
  17. If you trust your teachers with the children, you should trust them with the Internet. Addendum: Mistrust of teachers drives away good educators.
  18. If you make it too hard to get permission to unblock something, you might as well not have the option in the first place.
  19. Unless you like losing lawsuits, remember that students and staff have speech and privacy rights, particularly off-campus. Remember that any dumb decision you make is Internet fodder and has a good chance of going viral online. Do you really want to be the next stupid administrator story on The Huffington Post?
  20. When you violate the Constitution and punish kids just because you don’t like what they legally said or did and think you can get away with it, you not only run the risk of incurring financial liability for your school system in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars but also abuse your position of trust and send messages to students about the corruption of power and disregard for the rule of law.
  21. Never make a policy you can’t enforce.
  22. Don’t abdicate your teaching responsibility. Students do not magically gain the ability at the end of the school day or after graduation to navigate complex, challenging, unfiltered digital information spaces. If you don’t teach them how to navigate the unfiltered Internet appropriately and safely while you have them, who’s going to?
  23. Acceptable use and other policies send messages to students, staff, and parents. Is the predominant message that you want to send really that ‘the technologies that are transforming everything around us should first and foremost be feared?’
  24. Imagine a scale with two balancing pans. On one side are all of the anxieties, fears, barriers, challenges, and perceived problems that your staff, parents, and community members put forth. If you want effective technology integration and implementation to occur in your school system, it is your job as the leader to tip the scale the other way. Addendum: It is difficult to understand the learning power of digital technologies – and easy to dismiss their pedagogical usefulness – if you are not familiar enough with them to understand their positive affordances.
  25. In a hyperconnected, technology-suffused, digital, global world, you do your children a disservice – and highlight your irrelevance – by blocking out our present and their future.
  26. Educating is always, always more powerful than blocking.

BONUS 1. Elsewhere in your state – perhaps even near you – are school districts that have figured this out. They operate under the same laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that you do. If they can be less restrictive, why can’t you?

A huge thanks to everyone who has influenced my thinking and my writing in this area, including folks like Doug Johnson, Sylvia Martinez, danah boyd, Will Richardson, and Tina Barseghian. I’m sure that I’ve forgotten a few talking points that I’ll just add later. Which one is your favorite (or least favorite)? What would you add to or change on this list?

For other Leadership Day 2012 posts, see the complete list of submissions and/or #leadershipday12.

Image credit: Bigstock, Internet security

#MobilityShifts – Day 2: Privacy, Surveillence and the Academic Commons [guest post]

Matthew K. Gold presenting at #MobilityShifts

I’m writing this in the lounge area of the Manhattan hotel at which I’m staying. There’s some people warming up for an evening out with a few cocktails and others, like me, busy on their digital devices. The whole scene is bathed in relaxing yet upbeat music. Happily, this matches the mood I’m in after attending two sessions at the Mobility Shifts conference today. 🙂

The Cryptopticon: The New Nature of Privacy and Surveillance

The first session I attended was led by Siva Vaidhyanathan (@sivavaid) who spent about an hour and twenty minutes (including questions) on the nature of privacy and surveillance. In a nutshell, he argued that Jeremy Bentham’s (metaphorical) idea of the State having a ‘panopticon‘ which keeps us all in line through fear is not, in fact, what we should be afraid of.


Instead, Siva argued, we need to be aware of the ‘cryptopticon’ and the data mining of private actors (i.e. the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon). This is particularly important in education for two reasons. Firstly, classrooms are simultaneously non-public and non-private spaces in which students can ‘try on ideas for size’. Individuals can venture opinions and then backtrack as needed without being held accountable further down the line. Secondly, educators can play devil’s advocate over a sustained period of time, effectivly ‘lying’ to their students in order to provoke a reaction. Siva gave the example of a class on politics where to shake up a ‘lazy unanimity’ amongst his students, he played the part of a classical neoliberal. This drew out nuances between the positions of students which were otherwise in broad agreement. The classroom, he stated, is a place for deliberation and therefore shouldn’t be recorded.

I won’t rehearse the entire session, but interestingly Siva mentioned that we have a ‘flattened vocabulary’ when it comes to ‘privacy’. Indeed, we don’t really know what it means. The definition Siva gives is, “the autonomy to manage one’s reputation among various contexts”. Such a definition makes statements such as ‘the death of privacy’ meaningless. We need privacy for twp main reasons, argued Siva:

  1. To protect our own dignity (we should be the ones that get to tell the world about ourselves)
  2. To mitigate harm and prevent extortion (for example, we should be able to get whatever books we want out of a library without fear of reprisal)

The State and private companies collecting (and mining) data have no interest, argued Siva, in the ‘panopticon’ model of surveillance. Why? Because it leads to individual self-censorship meaning that the information being collected is not accurate. The State wants the terrorist to act like a terrorist so that they get caught, and the private company wants the individual to display patterns of behaviour that will enable them to better serve up advertisements. It is the ‘cryptopitican’ of which we should be wary: the hidden surveillance that is practically invisible because it is layered with obscurity in ever-changing privacy policies. After all, unless you think there is a problem, there is no need to go looking for one.

In the Q&A session afterwards, I asked Siva what he thought about schools and universities adopting things like Google Apps Education Edition and Microsoft Live@Edu. He replied that his own university is going down this route and that he has campaigned for the administrators to enter negotiations with a list of demands and questions of Google. However, it’s difficult when what is being offered is powerful and free. The administrators talk, Siva noted, of ‘balances’ and ‘trade-offs’, a notion that he rejects. How do you measure ‘privacy’ and ‘security’? If they can’t be measured, they can’t be ‘balanced’.

Open Education: The University and the Commons

Matthew K. Gold (@mkgold) led the second session I attended today. He talked about:

  1. The CUNY Academic Commons
  2. The Commons
  3. New Models for the Networked Commons

Having spent the vast majority of my career thus far in schools I saw that this is just as much an issue for school leaders and teachers as it is for academics. How do we foster a sense of collegiality and experimentation whilst maintaining rigour? Matt, as Director of the CUNY (City University of New York) Academic Commons, has worked with others such as Boone Gorges (@boone) to create a decentralised, DIY space based on Open Source software for students and educators to interact.

There was much to like in Matt’s fast-paced presentation, not least his mantra that the ‘service model’ of IT provision disempowers and inhibits educators and academics. Partly due to funding, partly from underlying philosophy, the staff associated with the CUNY Academic Commons will only help educators and academics help themselves. They won’t do it all for you. Yes, they could have just used Facebook but to do so would have been building equity for a private company at the expense of empowering others.

Another refreshing thing to hear was that they wanted activity around objects rather than to be a repository for the objects themselves. The activity and objects would be open and public by default, with the option to make spaces more private. The structure of the spaces would grow organically, like a beehive with many entry points. Matt quoted with approval Tom Scheinfelt: “We judge our tools by one key metric above all others: use. Successful tools are tools that are used.”

CUNY Academic Commons uses a combination of WordPress, a ‘social networking plugin’ called BuddyPress and MediaWiki (the platform that Wikipedia runs upon). Small things, such as developing plugins that allow single sign-on between MediaWiki and WordPress/BuddyPress can be very important for gaining traction. The profiles, groups, and discussion spaces allow for improved scholarly communication, argued Matt.

After giving this overview of the CUNY Academic Commons, Matt gave an overview of the notion of a ‘Commons’ more generally. He stated that, in essence, it is a shared resource often to do with land. The debate and conversation around the Commons, however, has been skewed by a 1968 publication entitled The Tragedy of the Commons which argued that any such arrangement would collapse due to self-interest. Matt argued with Lewis Hyde (author of Common as Air) that “A true commons is a stinted thing”. In other words, all true Commons are bounded in some way. In fact, quoting David Harvey this time, Matt argued that the Commons is less a space and more a state of mind. We should be talking of a ‘cornucopia of the commons’ as the more people invest in it, the more valuable it becomes.

To finish off, Matt gave some examples of Commons that are in existence or will soon come into being:

Practices in this area are developing all the time with a recent development being ‘middle-state publishing’ (academic publishing in the liminal space between a blog post and a journal article). At the same time, Matt issued a warning about practices in new spaces. We shouldn’t just move existing conversations to new, more open and public spaces without thinking how and why we are doing so.

Perhaps the best reason to build an Academic Commons, however, was the reason given right at the end of the session. Invoking Zittrain’s notion of ‘generative spaces’, Matt argued that without open, emergent and organic spaces for people to come together we will never come across the unanticipated changes that make groups, organizations and societies better.


These two sessions had the potential to be heavy-going and quite depressing. However, there’s a real sense of hope and energy pushing towards a brighter future at this conference. What’s exciting is that, whilst we may be in the midst of the worst financial crisis in living memory, there’s people thinking about new, different and better ways for society and education to be structured. What’s necessary, however, for (positive) unexpected consequences to emerge is for those in control, the administrators, to facilitate experimentation.

Random things I saw in New York today:

  • A man carrying a sack of concrete on his back. Whilst riding a bike.
  • A baby wearing an If found crying, feed burgers babygro.
  • Special ice-creams for dogs (at Shake Shack, Madison Square Garden)

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf