USA Schools Are Normalising Intrusive Surveillance

As the authors detail, among the technologies are surveillance cameras. These are often linked to software for facial recognition, access control, behavior analysis, and weapon detection. That is, cameras scan student faces and then algorithms identify them, allow or deny them entry based on that ID, decide if their activities are threatening, and determine if objects they carry may be dangerous or forbidden.

“False hits, such as mistaking a broomstick, three-ring binder, or a Google Chromebook laptop for a gun or other type of weapon, could result in an armed police response to a school,” cautions the report.

That’s not a random assortment of harmless-until-misidentified items; a footnoted 2022 Charlotte Observer piece points out such objects were tagged as weapons by scanners in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “A how-to video posted earlier this year by administrators at Butler High School instructs students to remove certain belongings from their backpacks — and walk through the scanner holding their laptops above their heads — to avoid setting off a false alarm,” it adds.

Huh. What happens if behavior analysis algorithms decide that brandished laptops are threatening?

Also called out is software that monitors social media, students’ communications, and web-surfing habits. Audio monitors that are supposed to detect gunshots—but can be triggered by slammed doors (as at Greenwood High School in Arkansas earlier this year)—also feature in many schools.

Of students aged 14–18 surveyed by the ACLU, 62 percent saw video cameras in their schools (the U.S. Department of Education says cameras are used by 91 percent of public schools), and 49 percent reported monitoring software. Understandably, this affects their behavior. Thirty-two percent say, “I always feel like I’m being watched,” and 26 percent fret over what their “school and the companies they contract with do with the data.”

“Research demonstrates the damaging effect of surveillance on children’s ability to develop in healthy ways,” Fedders added. “Pervasive surveillance can create a climate in which adults are seen as overestimating and overreacting to risk. Children, in turn, cannot develop the ability to evaluate and manage risk themselves in order to function effectively.”

Notably, school surveillance normalizes the idea that constant monitoring is good and necessary for preserving safety.

68