Spyware apps were foisted on students at the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns. Today, long after most students have returned to in-person learning, those apps are still proliferating, and enabling an ever-expanding range of human rights abuses. In a recent Center for Democracy and Technology report, 81 percent of teachers said their schools use some form of this "student monitoring" spyware. Yet many of the spyware companies supplying these apps seem neither prepared nor concerned about the harms they are inflicting on students.
These student spyware apps promise scalable surveillance-as-a-service. The lure of “scalability” is a well-documented source of risk to marginalized users, whose needs for individualized consideration are overshadowed by the prospect of building mass-scale, one-size-fits-all “solutions” to social problems. The problems of scale are dangerously exacerbated by laws that disparately impact marginalized communities.
Today, Americans face an unprecedented, record-breaking wave of legislation targeting transgender youth: from sports bans, to speech and literature bans, to the criminalization of life-saving healthcare, all on top of the widespread practices of locker-room- and bathroom-bans.
And it’s not just trans kids in the crosshairs: Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court precedent that protects the right to have an abortion, is likely about to be overturned.
That means that students who use their devices to research trans healthcare or abortion related material could find those devices weaponized against them, potentially resulting in criminal charges. If prosecutors consider charges against students, the data gathered by mandatory student spyware apps like Bark, Gaggle, GoGuardian, and Securly will prove invaluable.
Another recent report, this one from Senator Warren’s office, concluded that student spyware apps are more dangerous than previously imagined. Their use in schools has disproportionately targeted students from marginalized communities and needlessly increased their contact with law enforcement.
Bark, one of the spyware companies singled out by the report’s authors, replied by insisting that they develop their machine learning mechanisms informed by data ethics checklists. But these checklists are ineffective, as demonstrated by the ongoing, mounting harms caused by student spyware, such as outing LGBTQ+ students.
Securly’s own example spreadsheet of content filtering categories includes “Health” sites (like WebMD), which are flagged as “needs supervision,” and “Adult” sites, which are fully blocked. While blocking “adult” content in schools may sound reasonable, this category needs to be understood in context: the machine learning algorithms that filter content routinely misclassify any LGBTQ+ content as “Adult” content. Gaggle blocks access to any LGBTQ+ content. GoGuardian blocks access to reproductive health materials.
The recklessness of flagging WebMD and huge quantities of LGBTQ+ material gives us a sense of the lack of care taken by many student spyware vendors. If visits to WebMD are flagged for adult review, and there are already examples of these apps outing LGBTQ+ students, it isn’t difficult to see the harms that will occur as more anti-trans laws pass and the legal right to abortion is overturned.
Apps like Bark and Gaggle could be compelled by law enforcement into gathering information on students who are LGBTQ+ or seeking an abortion. But these apps are wildly unprepared to be the in-school enforcers of such laws. Even a casual reading of their underwhelming responses to Senator Warren’s report makes it clear that they are unconcerned about their future role as Witchfinder General in the abortion and gender wars.
The overwhelming medical consensus holds that denying trans healthcare puts youths’ lives at risk. Laws that criminalize your identity violate our civil liberties. So do bills that undermine freedom of speech.
Software that produces and forwards data that is used as evidence against young people seeking to exercise their human rights and civil liberties affects us all. Whether or not you are immediately affected by anti-LGBTQ+ laws, anti-trans laws, or anti-abortion laws; whether or not you are a student required to use a spyware-infected device, this should matter to you.
It matters to us. EFF fights for the right of all users to be served by their technology, not jailed by it.