Thanks to a new software program called GoGuardian, select school dis- tricts now have the ability to monitor and report the Google searches of their students at school and home. The public has a right to be con- cerned, and they certainly ought to be. The act of constant civilian monitor- ing screams of a totalitarian regime. Still, GoGuardian’s proponants claim that the software that enables this intrusion has also been saving lives.
Ontario Christian Schools in Los Angeles have begun using the software to identify students who repeatedly searched Google for the word “suicide” and suicide-related terms so that they can intervene with counseling services. While positive and well-meaning, this policy still begs the quesion: should we accept technology’s seemingly intrusive ability to impact the greater good?
Like many school districts, Ontario Christian Schools distributes Google Chromebooks installed with virus protection and website restrictions to its students. NPR reports that the software program was originally installed to protect school laptops from restricted material: pornography, online games, hacking services etc. The ability to track student’s web browsing and history is not unique to GoGuardian; every inter- net search browser offers this ability.
However, Ontario Christian Schools are going further with this information by reporting sui- cidal searches of students to school counselors, administrators and par- ents. Such reporting seems to be a growing trend. Rodney Griffin, Chromebook administrator for Neosho School District in Missouri, says that around once a semester he calls parents late at night and says, “I think you need to check on your child.” Is this unacceptable behavior on the part of the school districts? Firstly, the laptops themselves are the property of the school dis- trict and loaned to the students; students would have to sign legal agreements and accept the terms before taking the computers home. When we question privacy invasion, it is important to remember these laptops are not private property. Secondly, tracking Google searches is not a new idea. Marketing com- panies constantly monitor their advertisements. Lawyers can pres- ent Google searches as evidence in court. Google searches can provide us with incredibly unique and insight- ful data. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote a landmark article in the New York Times and proved that restrictive abortion laws do not actu- ally reduce abortions. By analyzing nationwide Google searches, he con- cluded that searches for “home abor- tion methods” spiked in states such as Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, which have restrictive abortion laws. In short, Internet searches are a way to track data that people are reluctant to share due to cultural stigma and shame. Nevertheless, that informa- tion can still help impact attitudes, laws and intervention going forward.
On the issue of suicide, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force acknowledged how difficult it is “to identify and help people who are not already known to be at increased risk for suicide.” Depression can be incred- ibly difficult to talk about, and asking for help isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
To me, the acts of the Ontario Christian Schools seem to be reason- able within these legal parameters. Within the United States, monitor- ing Internet searches cannot invade the protection provided by the First or Fourth amendment. While peo- ple have every right to criticize and question the acts of the school dis- trict, I find myself unable to con- demn school administrators attempt- ing to curb the third leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds.
Ultimately, this is not a question about a single school district in Los Angeles, but of our worldwide attempt to prevent tragedy through the use of technology. Within hours of the ter- rorist attack in Belgium on March 22, international press began questioning Belgium’s attempts, or lack thereof, to gather Internet intelligence on known radical groups. Many have accused the European Union of holding indi- vidual citizen’s privacy above soci- ety’s safety. Going forward, this must be an honest, transparent global con- versation. How much government surveillance is necessary? Can we compromise technological privacy in the name of public security? At what point do we become the monitored dystopia Orwell imagined in 1984?
Annie Halloin ’18 (halloi1@sto- laf.edu) is from Eau Claire, Wisco. She majors in English and religion.