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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Case Study on Online Privacy

(AP Images/Seth Wenig)

(AP Images/Seth Wenig)

In the wake of recent school shootings that terrified both campus communities and the broader public, some schools and universities are implementing technical measures in the hope of reducing such incidents. Companies are pitching various services for use in educational settings; those services include facial recognition technology and social media monitoring tools that use sentiment analysis to try to identify (and forward to school administrators) student posts on social media that might portend violent actions.

A New York Times article notes that “[m]ore than 100 public school districts and universities … have hired social media monitoring companies over the past five years.” According to the article, the costs for such services range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands per year, and the programs are sometimes implemented by school districts without prior notification to students, parents, or school boards.

The social media posts that are monitored and analyzed are public. The monitoring tools use algorithms to analyze the posts.

A Wired magazine article tilted “Schools Are Mining Students’ Social Media Posts for Signs of Trouble” cites Amanda Lenhart, a scholar who notes that research has shown “that it’s difficult for adults peering into those online communities from the outside to easily interpret the meaning of content there.” She adds that in the case of the new tools being offered to schools and universities, the problem “could be exacerbated by an algorithm that can’t possibly understand the context of what it was seeing.”

Others have also expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the monitoring programs and about the impact they might have on the relationship between students and administrators. Educational organizations, however, are under pressure to show their communities that they are doing all they can to keep their students safe.

Discussion Questions

Are there some rights that come into conflict in this context? If so, what are they? What is the appropriate balance to strike between them? Why?

Do efforts like the social media monitoring serve the common good? Why, or why not? For a brief explanation of this concept, read “The Common Good.”

Does the fact that the social media posts being analyzed are public impact your analysis of the use of the monitoring technology? If so, in what way(s)?

Should universities not just notify students but also ask them for their input before implementing monitoring of student social media accounts? Why or why not?

Should high schools ask students for their input? Should they ask the students’ parents for consent? Why or why not?

According to The New York Times, a California law requires schools in the state “to notify students and parents if they are even considering a monitoring program. The law also lets students see any information collected about them and tells schools to destroy all data on students once they turn 18 or leave the district.” If all states were to pass similar laws, would that allay concerns you might have had about the monitoring practices otherwise? Why or why not?

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Photo by AP Images/Seth Wenig

Oct 5, 2018