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11 Sep, 2013 12:05

School for snooping: LA to monitor students’ social media postings

School for snooping: LA to monitor students’ social media postings

Authorities in California are now snooping on school students’ social media postings to catch law-breaking, bullying and other harmful activities. But parents worry the move is yet another example of Big Brother prying into ordinary Americans’ lives.

Glendale Unified School District, the third-largest in Los Angeles County, has paid Geo Listening Company over $40,000 to follow its students on social media networks. The stated aim is to prevent law-breaking, bullying and doing harm to themselves and others.

Under the scheme, the online activities of Glendale’s 13,000 middle-school and high-school students are closely monitored.

“All of the individual posts we monitor on social media networks are already made public by the students themselves. Therefore, no privacy is violated,” Geo Listening Company said, adding it does not “monitor email, SMS, MMS, phone calls, voicemails or unlock any privacy setting of a social network user.”

Geo Listening is aiming to become a market leader in aggregating and analyzing publicly available content for educational facilities’ security needs.

Since the company only tracks publicly available posts, students can evade monitoring by posting privately. But anonymous services such as Tor are coming under pressure in the US, raising the possibility that private web surfing could become a thing of the past.

Geo Listening bills its computing capabilities as “providing actionable daily reports to designated school administrators and staff, using a robust tier methodology” that does not interfere with existing school policies or procedures.

Vladimir Kremlev for RT

It claims it can track “bullying, cyber-bullying, despair, hate, harm, crime, vandalism, substance abuse, truancy” and much more, using popular services like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Picasa, Vine, Flickr, Ask.fm, YouTube, Google+ or anywhere else where people share information voluntarily.

Dick Sheehan, Glendale’s school supervisor, told the Glendale News-Press that the new service is helping the district to go “above and beyond” in matters of security.

School board member Christine Walters told the newspaper that educators simply have to be more “proactive to find ways to protect our students from ongoing harm,” because they are well aware of bullying taking place online.

“Similar to other safety measures we employ at our schools, we want to identify when our students are engaged in harmful behavior,” Walters said.

Glendale opted to learn more about its students after a 15-year-old boy, an alleged bullying victim, committed suicide by jumping out of a school window in plain view of dozens of his classmates, Glendale News-Press reported. The contract with Geo Listening was signed some time ago.

“Our ability to provide a social network monitoring service for each of your respective campuses separates our company from any other in the marketplace,” Geo Listening said, adding that its “unique service model for public and private schools also allows administrators to focus on students rather than technology.”

Cyber security experts warn, however, that students should be made aware of the monitoring, or they will fear trusting anyone. 

“As a parent, I find it very Big Brother-ish,” said Yalda Uhls, a researcher at the Children's Digital Media Center at the University of California in Los Angeles.