School software walks the line between safety monitor and ‘parent over shoulder’

By Larry Magid

Young man and laptopAs someone who’s been working on Internet safety, privacy and security for more than 20 years, I sometimes feel like I’m at odds with myself. On one hand, I want everyone — especially young people — to be safe online. And, when it comes to K-12 students using school computers, I agree with education officials who want to make sure that students are using school equipment safely and in an appropriate manner.

But, as a privacy advocate, I also want to make sure that young people can use the Internet without having to worry about who is looking over their shoulder.

So, I’m a bit conflicted about products like GoGuardian, which enable school administrators to monitor and filter student use of school-issued Chromebooks.

To its enormous credit, the service is — literally — a life saver. NPR reported the case of Ontario Christian School where an administrator received evidence that a student was in severe emotional distress and, thanks to information unearthed by GoGuardian, was able to intervene in time to prevent a possible suicide. This, according to GoGuardian founder and COO Todd Mackey is not an isolated incident. “Our administrators continue to tell us how they have been able to positively intervene when students are searching in earnest on how to kill themselves. It’s very very powerful.”

The software also enables schools to control what students can access, keeping them from: sites with inappropriate sexual content; that advocate self-harm, illegal drug use or violence; hate sites–or whatever else the school has decided to ban.


Services like GoGuardian can be abused, so it’s important for stakeholders in any school system that employs such filtering and monitoring to make sure that students aren’t the only ones who sign onto an acceptable use policy. Officials — including administrators and teachers — need to be accountable for how they use the service in terms of what they block and what information they access. Mackey said that GoGuardian provides system administrators with “accountability and review though audit logs that are immutable.” So if a school employee were looking at a student’s web history, the administrator in charge ”would have access to the log,” showing what information was looked at.

Preventing possible suicides is the most dramatic example of how monitoring can benefit students, but there are other examples, such as being able to prevent or intervene in cyberbullying or knowing when a student is likely to engage in self-harm.

Privacy issues

Still, there are privacy risks, such as when a student uses a school-issued computer to research health issues or access information about contraception or abortion or explore or express opinions about politics or religion, which may be none of the school’s business. There is also the privacy rights of parents or siblings who might wind up using the student’s Chromebook.

Schools and employers can monitor their equipment

Legally, the school is generally within its rights to monitor or filter student use of school-owned equipment, even if that equipment is used in the student’s home, just as employers are generally able to monitor employee use of a company’s equipment. 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. According to Hemu Nigam, privacy consultant to GoGuardian and CEO of SSP Blue, “Any time you introduce new technologies into a school system, many competing notions of privacy and safety are raised.” He said that the company “believes that schools can achieve a healthy balance by inserting strong accountability and transparency into the process, so everyone always knows what is happening.”

There are boundaries that should never be crossed. In 2010, a Pennsylvania school district was sued after it was disclosed that officials had activated a webcam in a child’s home. Mackey said that his product does not enable remote access to webcams.

Meaningful transparency

If a school is going to monitor or filter access on its equipment used by students at home, than that should be very clear to students and their parents. Of course, it should be disclosed in any acceptable use policy but the school should go beyond having the student and/or parents sign a document by having clear conversations  with students so that they understand their responsibilities as well as the school’s policies and procedures regarding potential monitoring.

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