This story reveals for the first time that millions of Texas’ students have been subject to surveillance of their digital communications by their schools, often without their knowledge or consent. These technologies, which can monitor students’ email, social media, Hangout chats and even Google Docs, have been used by more than 200 districts in Texas. Legal and privacy experts have long raised concerns about these technologies, but thus far their use has not been litigated by the courts. The story also documents how Texas’ top lawmakers (including the governor and a U.S. senator) pushed for the adoption of these services.
In response to my findings, a state lawmaker pledged to introduce legislation on the issue in the next session saying “Parents do not know, unfortunately, that their kids are part of a mass surveillance effort, and we need to address that, quite simply,” he told me.
I was also asked to appear on The Daily Dive, a national news podcast from iHeartRadio, to discuss my findings.
I used SQLite, Excel and Google Sheets to compile and query my data. I used QGIS and Tableau to create the map of the school districts who use or used these technologies, and the News’ in-house charting tool Chartwerk to create a searchable database. This database included the name of the school/district, which technology they purchased, the school year they purchased the technology, the number of students that school year, the purchase description and the total purchase price. The data for this database was obtained through GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending, and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education statistics. I also published a version of this database on my GitHub, which includes comment from all the schools who responded to my questions.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Perhaps the most difficult part of this project was juggling all of the public records requests I made.
I filed records requests at every public four-year college in the state of Texas for correspondence from or related to one of the four surveillance technologies, purchase orders for these technologies and campus police budgets and inventories. I also filed records requests at several school districts using these services. Several of the schools and districts I filed records requests with appealed to the Texas Attorney General’s office, claiming that they didn’t have to release the material I asked for. Many of the schools also quoted outrageous initial cost estimates — for example, one college initially asked for $19,184.03 to complete my request.
The jury should select this project because it is the first that I know of that has documented the true scope of digital surveillance in schools and also the first to list the schools that use these technologies, so that the students, parents and policymakers can ask tougher questions about whether they should be used in the first place.
What can others learn from this project?
I hope this story encourages other journalists, and particularly student journalists, to pursue stories on surveillance and AI accountability. I also hope U.S.-based journalists and researchers will use this story as a template to examine school surveillance in their state. These are by no means the only technologies schools use to surveil students, so I hope someone is able to truly examine the other services out there which seek to monitor and control their behavior.