School Surveillance of Student Social Media Raises Privacy Concerns

May 2, 2016

Cyberspace SpyThe Orlando, Florida public school system recently joined a growing number of schools around the country monitoring social media posts of students.  The surveillance was launched in an effort to protect students.  Some privacy advocates, however, find the increasing school reliance on social media monitoring to be a troubling trend.

The Orlando schools now use a software product called “Snaptrends” to monitor all public social media posts of all students in the system.  Snaptrends and similar social media surveillance systems are widely used by law enforcement authorities in search of evidence of criminal activities.  They are increasingly popular with school systems, as well.

These systems monitor all public social media posts of targeted individuals.  They track and analyze social media communications in search of specific content.  School systems attempt to track student social media for indications of bullying, criminal conduct, and suicide.  The surveillance is intended to protect students.

When troubling content is discovered, appropriate authorities are contacted and made aware of the situation, setting the stage for helpful intervention.  School authorities in various jurisdictions credit the social media surveillance for preventing suicides and reducing the number of bullying incidents.

Matsuura Blakeley BannerSome privacy advocates, however, find the rapidly growing use of social media surveillance by schools to be a threat to the privacy of students and their families.  They suggest that widespread use of the monitoring systems involves surveillance that is broader than necessary to facilitate effective student support.  Such overly broad surveillance can undermine reasonable privacy expectations of students and their families.

Authorities using the surveillance systems note that all of the material monitored by the systems is publicly accessible.  Any interested party could access the social media content tracked by the systems, thus authorities electing to use the monitoring technologies contend that there is no unreasonable intrusion into personal privacy.

Another concern associated with social media monitoring is the extent to which any surveillance materials are stored for future analysis or reference.  If the monitoring systems create their own archives or records of content analyses, there are legitimate privacy concerns associated with the duration of time those materials will be retained and the range of people and organizations who will have access to the materials.

If extensive archives of student social media posts are created and retained, their content could prove to be harmful to student interests at various points in the future if they ever become available to parties including colleges, employers, and insurers.  It seems appropriate that the students involved should have at least as much control over all of their social media content which has been captured by their schools for surveillance purposes as they have over that content under the privacy and use policies of the social media platforms on which they originally posted the material.

Ideally, social media surveillance of students will be limited to the minimum amount necessary to support effective protection from the most serious threats, including criminal conduct, bullying, and suicide.  As the monitoring systems are implemented, however, it is vital that the policies and practices associated with the systems minimize the volume of archival records that are retained and carefully limit the range of parties authorized to access those materials.  Data management experience suggests that retention of electronic data collections poses a serious threat to personal privacy.