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More kids are going back to school. So why is laptop surveillance increasing?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A new school year is coming right up. And if you are a student or you have one in your home, you may not realize how much that school-issued laptop or tablet might know about your private life. A report in Wired magazine digs into the school's surveillance software that monitors students online activity, both in and out of the classroom. And it asks how much private information can be accessed by schools or by law enforcement, for that matter.

Pia Ceres wrote the story. It is headlined "Kids Are Back In Classrooms And Laptops Are Still Spying on Them." Pia Ceres, welcome.

PIA CERES: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: OK. So these surveillance programs, as I understand it, they were originally meant to monitor student productivity during the pandemic, during virtual school. Now kids are back or they're about to go back mostly in-person. These programs are still being widely used. Do we know how widely?

CERES: Sure. So according to a report conducted by the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, schools are actually using monitoring software even more than they were last year. So even though the majority of American K-12 students are or will soon be returning to the classroom, 89% of teachers say that their schools will continue to be using monitoring software on their devices. That's up 5 percentage points from last year.

KELLY: Why?

CERES: So two big reasons come to mind. One is that teachers genuinely find them useful, even in the classroom. One high school teacher I spoke with said that it made her more efficient. Teachers are facing these unprecedented demands in the classroom. They're helping students catch up from all the academic and emotional disruption caused by the pandemic, so I completely see the appeal of tools that make a teacher's life easier.

And the last reason is more somber. I think the fear of violence at schools is a specter that hangs over school communities, especially after tragedies like the shooting in Uvalde. Everyone wants to keep kids safe. And these companies say in their own marketing copy that they're detection and surveillance algorithms can help save lives. So in a climate of fear, that claim could sound very reassuring.

KELLY: And just before we move on, so I understand, why would these programs make a teacher more efficient?

CERES: Sure. So according to the particularly high school teachers that I was talking to, the live view that the company's software offers let's teachers see what's happening in real time on student's screens so they can keep students more focused. They can see which students are on task, which students are maybe getting distracted and veering towards the many, many distractions that the Internet can offer a student. A teacher can also use the software to take remote control of the device and zap the offending tab themselves.

KELLY: Zap them. They can actually come in and shut down your Instagram or your, you know, Zappos shoe shopping...

CERES: Right.

KELLY: ...Type thing. Obviously, you've been talking about teachers being able to monitor. What about law enforcement? Do police have the ability to access this?

CERES: Right. So that was one of the big reasons why I first came to this story after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I think that, you know, myself and others have been thinking about the ways in which our everyday digital surveillance infrastructures could potentially be closer to police than we'd normally think they are and could be used to criminalize those who are seeking reproductive health care. So according to the CDT survey, 37% of teachers said that schools will have the monitoring software on outside of regular hours. And during those off school hours, alerts are directed or can be sent to a public safety organization such as police, who would receive those alerts and decide how to respond from there.

KELLY: To be clear, this is all perfectly legal as the law currently stands?

CERES: Absolutely.

KELLY: So if I'm a parent - I'm a parent (laughter) - or a kid using a school-issued laptop, are there best practices to recommend if you are interested in protecting your privacy and your family's privacy?

CERES: That is such a great question. I think the first thing to do is to have a conversation with your child about the expectation of privacy that they should and should not have on their school-issued devices. The second thing that I would encourage parents to do is talk to your children's school. Try to get as transparent an idea as possible about what kinds of data the monitoring company is collecting on students, whether it works after hours, and whether it could potentially be used to bridge the connection between the classroom and law enforcement.

KELLY: Pia Ceres from Wired magazine. Thank you for sharing your reporting. Fascinating.

CERES: Thank you for having me. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Enrique Rivera
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.