Chromebook hyper-security pushes the limit of student privacy

Chromebook ColorLast month, students started noticing an intensified site-blocking surge from the school. Once friendly resources such as Shmoop and NPR were blocked as enemy territory. When a page was blocked, we were met with a brand new, unbudging grayed out screen, with no option but to close the tab and try another site.

Such changes were innocently annoying. However, when deans began summoning students in for Chromebook activity deemed inappropriate for school, students were forced on the alert. Suddenly, all it took was a misclick on a website while conducting research to be disruptively called in.

This shift was made official with a school-wide email from administration announcing that the school was using software applications to monitor, track, and filter Chromebook activity both on and off campus. They clarified what they meant by inappropriate, or non-academic, use, including “visiting inappropriate websites [and inappropriate] shared conversations (in a Google doc)” as well as “other activities not related to their schoolwork.” The primary software application they were referring to was GoGuardian, a Safety Management Platform that has become increasingly popular for schools with a 1:1 Chromebook program.

However, GoGuardian is infamous for its blindly invasive security methods in the school-issued Chromebook world. Its artificial intelligence flags terms and keystrokes, not just unsafe sites, and teachers have access to an extensive report of all student computer usage. One of the reasons for this feature is allegedly suicide prevention, as flagged terms send “Smart Alerts” to the school to contact the student’s parents, no matter where or at what time. While this objective has succeeded in a few cases, the whole idea is a slippery slope. Mistaken flags turn into unnecessary monitoring for unaware students.

Furthermore, the GoGuardian website says, “we firmly support the fact that school districts should and do own and control their students’ ‘Personal Student Information.’ We take great efforts to collaborate with customers to provide them the ability to access, modify, and delete this data consistent with FERPA, COPPA, and all other applicable laws.” This Personal Student Information includes “a student’s browsing history, IP address, relevant online content and chats within GoGuardian Teacher.”

It’s difficult, to say the least, to imagine a scenario in which such information as a student’s browsing history would ever need to be modified or deleted by the school. Statements like these only bring GoGuardian’s intentions and handling of student privacy into question.

Of course, companies like GoGuardian claim to act in accordance with student privacy laws. However, as Forbes writer Larry Magid put it in an article about school Chromebook software, “But just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily make it right, especially if the student is unaware that the school may access that information.”

Often, blocking “inappropriate” websites only hinder the learning experiences of students who do use the computers responsibly. Research projects can be about any number of topics, some of which may seem unconventional to an emotionless online filter. In my own experience with the school’s IB program, this has included sites about world music, online Spanish short stories, and research for my Theory of Knowledge class, which covers a wide range of topics not typically associated with school such as religion and indigenous knowledge systems. How does the school decide which sites are “not school-related?” This does not feel like internet safety; it feels like censorship. At least the old security software allowed us to email administration from blocked sites to ask for permission or explain why we were on the site. Even if they hardly responded, it at least gave us some premise of control over the situation. Now, we have no choice but to find an alternate, often weaker, source.

It is true that our school issued these Chromebooks out of the best interests of its students, to teach us how to be technologically savvy in a digital world. However, there is no opt out to this program, and the school makes it impossible to succeed without using a Chromebook, with the majority of assignments done online through Google Classroom. Especially as many students have limited access to any other computers, it is impossible to do well in an already competitive school without utilizing them. We are thus subjected to the constant threat of the school monitoring our every keystroke.

“We listen carefully to the ideas and critiques of every administrator, teacher, or school leader of GoGuardian. We also listen intently to the opinions of privacy leaders and parents,” the website assures.

But this issue is not about the adults; it is about the students. These school-issued Chromebooks are an invaluable way to teach us safe internet usage skills and researching methods. However, by such constant monitoring and confining censorship, we are only being prohibited from the fulfilling learning experience that these computers should offer.

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