Spying or protecting students? CBS46 Investigates school surveillance software

Supporters say it can potentially stop a school shooting or prevent a suicide - while opponents express a range of privacy and fairness concerns around the use of this technology.
Updated: Feb. 14, 2022 at 5:32 PM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - When the pandemic hit, schools across Georgia supplied laptops so students could learn from home. Many of those devices allowed administrators to monitor students – all in the name of protecting them.

CBS46 Investigates took an inside look at the sometimes controversial technology.

Supporters say it can potentially stop a school shooting or prevent a suicide because administrators can intervene if a student is searching about self-harm or guns, and a teacher is alerted.

While opponents express a range of digital privacy and fairness concerns around the use of technology – specifically toward students who are economically disadvantaged and may rely on school issued devices.

There’s also worries that these tools could potentially out gay or transgender students, who might be researching sexuality.

Surveillance Software

Tech companies like Securly, Gaggle, Lightspeed and GoGuardian are marketing surveillance software to school districts with bold claims. A superintendent in a Gaggle promotional video says, “Lifesaving, life changing.”

While the voice in a Securly promotional video happily says, “Securly makes protecting kids online easy through features like bullying and self-harm detection.”

Securly has said that its technology “protects 10 million students across 10,000 districts.” Atlanta Public Schools is one of those districts, installing Securly in the summer of 2020.

“We had to find a solution that would work for students not just in school but would also be able to filter the content while they’re home,” said Femi Aina, Information Technology Exec. Director at Atlanta Public Schools.

Aina says Securly doesn’t just filter content.

“If you have a bunch of students in a class, a teacher can pull up on the screen what each individual student is looking at [at school] and control it and can even lock things down,” Aina said. “Teachers and parents have the ability to look into the student’s portal to see what the student has been searching and to selectively block stuff.”

Real-World Application

Securly also flags concerning keywords and alerts administrators in real time.

“If a student starts searching on ‘how can I sneak a gun into school’, it’ll alert on that because of the word gun,” Aina added.

During one week at APS in November 2021, 304 keywords were flagged:
Depression-related =...
During one week at APS in November 2021, 304 keywords were flagged: Depression-related = 87 Suicide = 42 Guns = 41 Self-harm = 14 Shootings = 5 Mass shootings = 1 Bomb = 1(Rachel Polansky)

During one week at APS in November 2021, 304 keywords were flagged.

  • Depression-related = 87
  • Suicide = 42
  • Guns = 41
  • Self-harm = 14
  • Shootings = 5
  • Mass shootings = 1
  • Bomb = 1

APS Principal Gail Johnson says Securly was used at her school – Sutton Middle -- after a student made a threat.

“We were able to use Securly to help us in the process of identifying the level of that risk, as well as providing supports and necessary follow through,” said Sutton Middle School Principal, Gail Johnson. “In this case, Securly was able to give us a great log of the sites the student had visited that day.”

Gail Johnson
Gail Johnson(CBS46)

And in another case, Johnson says staff was able to intervene when a student was displaying suicidal thoughts and Securly alerted a teacher.

“By having that depth of information, we were able to make the best decision for our next steps,” Principal Gail Johnson said.

But the technology doesn’t turn off when the bell rings. Whether the students are at school or at home, anything they do in their official school accounts is monitored.

“If one child is saved and children are saved from a possible suicide or shooting, I’m gonna be grateful,” said APS grandparent, Jud Jones.

APS parents – and grandparents – are divided.

“It doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s big brother, it’s 1984, it’s Orwellian. It’s big brother watching you and we got enough of that,” said APS parent, Eva Belle.

Unintended Consequences

There’s also worries that these tools could have unintended consequences – like outing gay or transgender students who might be researching sexuality.

“You could be in a conservative, religious family where this is not acceptable and then what?” Belle asked.

“These tools can catch that, share it with the school, and in some cases, share it back with the parent,” said Elizabeth Laird, Director at Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT).

Elizabeth Laird is part of a nonprofit digital rights group called Center for Democracy & Technology, or CDT. CDT conducted an online survey of 1,001 3-10 grade teachers, 1,663 K-12 parents, and 420 9-12 grade students in June 2021.

81-percent of teachers reported the use of surveillance software in their schools.

30-percent said that student activity monitoring is conducted “all of the time.”

CDT Survey
CDT Survey(CBS46)

Laird also expresses a range of privacy and fairness concerns around the use of this technology – specifically toward students who are economically disadvantaged.

“They are more likely to be reliant on school-issued devices because they can’t afford a personal device, so you have privacy and being able to opt out of this type of tracking is being determined by your family’s income,” Laird added.

Meanwhile, this tug of war between student privacy and surveillance wages on, all in the name of safety.

“If we’re able to prevent any bad things from happening, that would be a good day for us,” Aina added. “In the sense of big brother, we’re not constantly logged in looking at what our students are doing.”

Metro Atlanta Schools

CBS46 Investigates reached out to every school district in our area to find out if they used any form of educational software surveillance.

Gwinnett County Public Schools uses Fortinet to provide on-premises content filtering. They use Lightspeed as a remote solution for off-premises content filtering.

During a one-week span at GCPS in November 2021, Fortinet flagged 6,043 risky terms or phrases.

Clayton County Public Schools uses Gaggle.

Cherokee County School District uses NetSupport and additionally is piloting GoGuardian; ContentKeeper Mobile is used on CCSD-issued laptops that students are permitted to use at home.

Atlanta Public Schools uses Securly.

A Cobb County School District spokesman did not specify the type of service they use but said, “all student issued Windows laptops to Cobb students include internet filtering and antivirus protection.”

Fulton County Schools says it “does not actively monitor personal, student chats; instead, the district blocks social media and chat platforms popular with students, both on the FCS network and their assigned computers.” FCS went on to say that it “uses content-filtering software that shows and controls which websites students can access when using an FCS device and connected to the FCS network. FCS uses additional software which routes students and staff traffic back through content filters when they are using FCS-issued devices even if not connected to the FCS network.”

DeKalb County School District did not respond to our requests for information.

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