Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Glendale USD and the Cyber-Narks

Today is a rough day for Santa, what with the literally millions of stops he has to make over the next few hours. But his is also a year-round job, keeping that naughty and nice list up to date. The Glendale Unified School District in California, however, has made his job a little easier. Those voyeuristic assholes benevolent folks have graciously offered to pry into the private affairs of the 13,000 or so good (or not so good) little boys and girls in their district. Think of the time that saves Santa (and the NSA).

Once again, as with the bullshit questionnaire in Illinois I wrote about yesterday, the motives are impeccable, at least as far as the perpetrators are concerned. This isn’t a prurient violation of privacy, you see, it’s all about “student safety.” The fact that what students do outside school hours is none of the district’s fucking business doesn’t matter, then. Nor does the fact that the administrators aren’t police… or doctors… or priests… or even trained social workers. They’re just… you know… nosy concerned.

OK, yes, if all that is being monitored are public posts, then the whole procedure is probably legal. But paying over $40,000—pretty close to the cost of another teacher, who might actually do some good—to hire a private company to nark to you about your students sure as hell isn’t ethical. Nonetheless, the snoops at a company called Geo Listening (how quaint) spew forth a daily report about cyber-bullying, harm, hate, despair, substance abuse, vandalism and truancy.

***JARGON ALERT***. The purpose, you see, is to supply “critical information as early as possible,” allowing school employees “to disrupt negative pathways and make any intervention more effective.” Seriously: “disrupt negative pathways”?

Not sure if this is Richard Sheehan.  I think so, though,
All of this gets idiot creepers like Superintendent Richard Sheehan aroused. He murmurs inanities about “going above and beyond” in terms of student safety. Perhaps someone should tell him that his phrasing makes it clear that this kind of invasiveness isn’t necessary? Nah, he could never comprehend that concept.

This silliness (or, rather, what would be silliness if it weren’t so insidious) began, apparently, because a Glendale student killed himself last year. Therefore, all civil liberties must be suspended in perpetuity. And, of course, the True Believers credit a pilot program with allowing an intervention with a suicidal student. Perhaps this is true. It still wouldn’t justify this eavesdropping program. I’d point out three things, however: 1). Making Shit Up is really easy if you know that confidentiality rules mean no one can ever either verify or discredit your claim. 2). Assuming the case existed at all, I don’t know (and neither does Sheehan) whether the student was really suicidal. 3). Assuming the student existed and was suicidal, there’s no way of knowing whether an intervention would have occurred anyway, without the Big Brother operation.

There are also those with concerns (duh!) about privacy, concerns that aren’t addressed by Clintonesque legalisms. Naturally, the district administration couldn’t care less. And students are at least aware of the program, meaning that they’re finding ways around the system. There was a Facebook page—Remove Your School—started by Glendale students urging classmates to remove identifiers from Facebook profiles. The page isn’t there anymore… were I of a suspicious disposition (perish the thought) I might suspect that the school strong-armed the students into taking it down (or that the Zuckerberg minions dutifully removed any page that might suggest that absolute transparency in all things might not solve all the world’s problems). And some social media do indeed allow posts to be “friends only.”

And there, of course, is the rub. If I’m a Glendale student, and I don’t want the school administration figuratively peering over my shoulder every time I put something on Facebook, I can avoid that scrutiny. And why would I want to do that? Well, perhaps I have something to hide (drug use, truancy, etc.) or maybe it’s just that I’m smart enough to believe that what I tell my friends is none of Dick Sheehan’s damned business.

This program, then, is a colossal boondoggle. It may be legal, but it’s certainly creepy, and it violates the spirit of privacy laws even if it adheres to the letter. But equally importantly, one of two things is true: either Geo Listening has the technical expertise and the immorality to monitor private correspondence, or anything that really matters won’t get picked up at all. Sure, Sheehan and his lackeys will get their jollies eavesdropping on perfectly normal but potentially embarrassing adolescent behavior, but student safety, the purported goal of this enterprise, will be completely unaffected. No good comes of this, and the school (which is to say, the taxpaying public) is out 40 grand.

Well, Sheehan does get some Curmie Award consideration. There is that.

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