Law in the Internet Society

The Playground Panopticon (Version 2)

-- By OrnaMadigan - 17 Dec 2023


A red dot appeared next to user 17’s name. I quickly reprimanded them: “let’s get back on task.” A pop-up screen: “user 12 inactivity: 00:05:00.” I direct messaged; “I can see you’re not working.” I yawned, just another day as a 7th grade middle school teacher.

While at first glance this routine may evoke an image more akin to a sweat-shop overlord, for myself and countless other educators tasked with teaching during a global pandemic this was our reality. Uncertain of how to effectively deliver material while maintaining student attention, platforms such as Zoom, Gabble, and Google Classroom swooped in, promising a panacea, and we took the bait. However, as daily temperature checks ceased and students began returning to the building, the surveillance platforms deployed as Covid-life jackets remained prevalent. While many ed-tech platforms continue to tout these tools under the guise of increased safety and enhanced engagement, the long-term consequences of this surveillance culture are both perilous and wildly unregulated.

Section I - What Do I Mean By Surveillance

According to the CDT in 2022 “eighty-nine percent of teachers reported that their school monitors student activity on school-issued and/or personal devices.” Inside the classroom, this looks like platforms such as Google Classroom and Lightspeed, which allow teachers to see what websites students are viewing, remotely close tabs and restrict wifi access. However, this surveillance doesn’t stop when the class period ends. In fact, in 2022 "only 45% of teachers reported that student activity monitoring is limited to when school is in session." Many schools are choosing to spend thousands on subscription services like Bark, Gnosis IQ, and Gaggle, platforms that use AI to continuously monitor student activity even after school hours, recording and alerting administrators, and sometimes law enforcement when “dangerous” or “harmful” activity or key words are discovered (this includes anything from accessing pornographic websites, searching for LGBTQIA+ resources, or sending explicit messages).

Section II - Effects on Students

In an article for Buzzfeed concerning the effects of Gaggle, a student noted; “now I’m very desensitized to the threat of my information being looked at by people,” and they certainly are not alone. The constant surveillance students are being subjected to, is forcing them to normalize having their screens watched, emails read, and search history inspected. Considering the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal (see The Great Hack), and its exposure of the terrifying ways personal electronic data can and is being used and manipulated to evoke enormous political and social change, are we really content training our next generation to be willing participants? Moreover, little is known of where student data is going or how it is being utilized. Gaggle, for instance, uses a human-review test whereby a Gaggle employee reviews the flagged material and determines its elevation status on a case-by-case basis. This means daily flagged student material–including explicit student images, are being reviewed by largely untrained, entry-level employees, with little transparency on where this data goes after review. This uncertainty, coupled with recent large-scale data breaches, makes the fact that we are placing students in the crossfires all the more troubling.

Section III - Solutions?

Advocates for decreasing this surveillance have proposed everything from legislative change to student organized push-back (see first draft). However, as pointed out (see first draft feedback), at the core of this issue and it’s proposed solutions lies a roadblock–organized concerted action. Begging the question, where are the ones who do, and have been doing since the 1850s, this the best–the teachers unions?

Although some teachers unions have taken a stance against in-person police and face surveillance, most, if not all, have stayed relatively silent regarding computer surveillance. Initially this may seem understandable considering the purported time saving “benefits” of tools like automatic grading, or remote laptop locking. After all, the teachers unions were created to look out for teacher’s best interest, and a lighter workload seems exactly that. However, looks can be deceiving, and a closer analysis reveals that these platforms may be just as threatening to teachers.

(1) Ed-Tech Surveillance Platforms Pose a Threat to Teacher Job Security

In a 2017 speech education expert, Anthony Seldon, predicted that by 2027 “in-classroom teaching will become obsolete,” and school teachers would become “little more than classroom assistants.” Although this may seem far-fetched, as the US battles an ever increasing teacher shortage, schools are looking for any viable solutions. Moreover, following the Covid-19 pandemic, many students have decided to remain remote. States like New York, eager to decrease the need for bus routes, and building access, have followed suit, implementing permanent options for students to remain fully remote. The reality is everyday schools are moving towards more technology and less human reliant learning models.

(2) Ed-Tech Surveillance Platforms Pose a Threat to Teacher Trust and Autonomy

This threat comes not only from the risk posed by large scale data breaches and student awareness of surveillance, but additionally from increased oversight. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Jessica Grose explores this issue in the context of accessible online gradebooks. In the article Grose examines how these gradebooks have led not only to students “gaming” the system, but also an “untenable stream of additional communication” to teachers from “hyper-checking” parents. For many of the teachers Grose interviews, it appears this new found 24/7 accessibility is shifting teachers focus from cultivating a nurturing environment and encouraging critical thinkers, to appeasing needy parents and trying to get students to see the big picture. As this pervasive atmosphere of surveillance and micromanagement persists, the foundational essence of teachers' roles as collaborators quickly starts crumbling.

(3) It’s Now or Never - These Technologies And Their Implementation Are Moving At Lightspeed

Lastly, even if one scoffs at my defining of these changes as threats, they cannot disregard that they are changing the way teachers are and will have to approach their profession. As teachers unions are in place for the sole purpose of protecting teachers, it seems only logical that they should be one of the loudest voices in advocating for methods of approaching these changes, and yet silence.


It’s evident that the education system is wading into unchartered waters. If we want to survive we will have to work together, and I posit that invigorating teachers unions may be the formally untapped tool key to making this happen.

I took liberty in not including the section titles in the 1000 word count. If this is not the case feel free to skip the intro.

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r3 - 17 Dec 2023 - 06:06:32 - OrnaMadigan
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