Future of Privacy Forum Releases Student Monitoring Explainer
On October 27, FPF released a new infographic, “Understanding Student Monitoring,” depicting the variety of reasons why schools monitor student digital activities, what types of student data are being monitored, and how that data could be used. While student monitoring is not new, it has gained significant traction recently due to the shift to remote learning and the increase in school-managed devices being issued to students.
“Student monitoring has been happening for years, but too often families only learn about it after their child has been flagged or they’ve read something in the news. And that lack of transparency creates questions and confusion about how exactly it works, and what is – and is not – being monitored,” said Amelia Vance, FPF’s Vice President of Youth and Education Privacy. “We hope that this infographic will help parents, students, educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders understand generally how student monitoring works and what it aims to do, and ultimately become empowered to ask questions about the monitoring products being used in their own districts, as there is often considerable variation.”
The infographic depicts the main reasons why schools monitor student activity online—ensuring student safety, legal compliance, and addressing community concerns—and highlights two areas of frequent confusion: what types of student data are being monitored, and how that data could be used.
While school administrators work with their chosen service provider to set up a monitoring system that meets their school’s needs, student data can be collected in multiple ways, including from:
- School-Issued Devices: any student data that travels through an internet connection, wired or wireless, on a school-managed device.
- School-Managed Internet Connections: data from students’ online content or activities on school-managed internet connections, potentially including take-home internet hotspots.
- School Apps & Accounts: student data from certain school-managed accounts, regardless of whether students access the accounts from personal devices or personal internet connections at home.
Monitoring systems analyze student data from these sources for potential concerning indicators, which are typically related to warning signs of self-harm, violence, bullying, vulgarity, pornography, or illegal behaviors. Some systems flag content for human review. From there, depending on the nature and severity of the flagged content and monitoring system in place, several actions could occur. The student could be sent a warning, the content could be blocked, or a designated school contact could be alerted. These actions are explored in further depth in FPF’s accompanying blog.
“Many school administrators, students, and families may be aware that monitoring systems seek to identify concerning indicators from students’ online activities, but there is often less understanding about what occurs once a system does flag concerning activity,” said Yasamin Sharifi, a Policy Fellow in FPF’s Youth and Education Privacy team. “FPF’s new infographic clarifies the analysis, actions and data retention that a monitoring system and school may perform. This understanding is crucial for any stakeholder seeking to comprehend the practical impacts of a student monitoring system.”
The infographic builds on a report released last month by FPF on the potential impacts of self-harm monitoring systems on students, “The Privacy and Equity Implications of Self-Harm Monitoring: Recommendations for Schools.” Prior to the pandemic, FPF took a closer look at the practices of network monitoring and social media monitoring in the context of school safety policies, and recently published a Student Privacy Primer that explains the foundational student privacy concepts, federal laws, and school and district policies that are often cited in discussions about student monitoring.