Growing up in Mississippi along the Gulf coast, Kenyatta Thomas had to rely on the internet and fellow teenagers to learn about sex. During high school gym class, they watched videos promoting abstinence and warning about the consequences of premarital sex. However, these lessons did not explain Thomas’s non-binary and bisexual identity. They eventually discovered a whole community of young people with similar experiences through blog posts on Tumblr. But with more states enacting anti-LGBTQ laws and abortion bans, privacy and civil rights advocates caution that the digital footprint left by Thomas and other students could endanger them, particularly if their school-issued devices collect intimate information about their sexuality and share their data with law enforcement. Elizabeth Laird, the Center for Democracy and Technology’s director of equity in civic technology, warns that these tools could have a chilling effect on youth seeking reproductive health resources after the Supreme Court repeal of Roe v Wade. In response to these concerns, some students have taken extra precautions to guard their privacy, such as using encrypted messaging apps. LGBTQ students are at particularly high risk as lawmakers enact rules prohibiting classroom discussions on gender and sexuality. They are also more likely to report trouble for their web browsing activity and to be contacted by police about having committed a crime. Christopher Wood, co-founder and executive director of LGBT Tech, urges companies providing student surveillance tools to reconsider collecting data about youth sexuality in light of these dangers.
During the pandemic, student monitoring tools have experienced significant growth and are no longer limited to web filtering. These tools now employ artificial intelligence that scans through students’ online activities, including their social media posts, to identify issues such as depression and violent tendencies. They can also search through files on school-issued laptops for warning signs, from classroom assignments to journal entries. However, the widespread adoption of the use of these tools has led to an increased focus on privacy concerns. In a report by Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, the use of these tools in schools could violate students’ civil rights by flagging words related to sexual orientation, which could lead to disproportionate disciplinary action or unintentional outing of students to their parents.
In July, Warren and Markey wrote to leading student surveillance companies – GoGuardian, Gaggle, Securly, and Bark – inquiring whether their tools are being used to flag students using keywords related to reproductive health, such as "pregnant" and "abortion." In their response, Bark’s CEO announced that the company has begun to immediately delete all data related to reproductive health to protect students’ privacy. While GoGuardian denies that their tool is being used to flag reproductive health-related keywords, Gaggle acknowledges that tracking conversations about sex is a primary part of their business. Gaggle’s founder and CEO has even disclosed that they came across a diary entry of a student who discussed sexual assault, which led to the intervention of school officials in providing the girl with the needed support and guidance.
These surveillance tools’ collection of students’ sexual behavior information could be used against students by the police during investigations. In addition, it is unclear how long the police can retain any data gleaned from these tools. There are concerns that search engines are also potent tools to track pregnant women’s behaviors, as seen in 2017 when a Mississippi woman was charged with second-degree murder after the police found searches for an abortion pill on her browser history.
In the current climate of "don’t say gay" regulations, digital surveillance tools have the potential to endanger LGBTQ students by exposing them, according to LGBT Tech member Wood. While student surveillance companies claim their inclusion of LGBTQ terms aims to assist students, Wood highlights how such data has historically been used against this community, rendering companies powerless in an era where educators and other students are urged to "out" their classmates. Recently in Texas, the governor directed child protective services to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming healthcare to their transgender children.
According to Wood, companies are unable to control how officials utilise this information, which puts students at risk of abuse and stigma. Susan from Cincinnati, who is 14 years old, discovered how surveillance firms can target students discussing their sexuality during therapy. In middle school, she was asked to write a letter to her future self, with the teacher promising no one would read it. Susan, now a freshman, used the opportunity to explore her gender identity. However, in May 2021, Gaggle notified Susan that her letter was considered "inappropriate" and warned her not to store or distribute offensive material. Further warnings followed, leading to her school email account being restricted, causing her to feel betrayed by the school.
Thomas, who is from Mississippi, called the incident not just surveillance of Susan’s activities, but of her thoughts. Utilising student data in enforcing Ohio’s strict abortion laws, Margaret stated, could exacerbate the consequences of such harms. In an email, a Cincinnati schools representative stated that law enforcement is contacted immediately when an alert suggests a student poses a threat of harm. However, Susan fears that student conversations and classroom assignments concerning gender and sexuality could end up in the hands of the police. Susan lost faith in the devices supplied by the school system after her assignment was picked up by the Gaggle software, saying she does not trust adults in power or authority, as she doesn’t know their true motives.