Perspectives: Should South have access to student activity on school-issued Chromebooks?

graphic by Julie Wang

YES – Briana Butera

When I learned that South would be lending me a computer for high school, I was beyond ecstatic. The thought of having my own laptop for four years made me feel mature and interested in what South had to offer. Of course, upon receiving that computer, I learned that it isn’t that simple. While many students might think of their school-issued computers as their own, the devices are property of the Newton Public Schools (NPS) in the same way that a desk, marker or textbook in the school building is, and therefore can and should be monitored.

Chromebooks are monitored because the school wants to ensure that students uphold the quality of the school-owned technology they’re lent. Administrators monitor student activity to check for permanent or potentially destructive software changes, because such changes  can be extremely difficult to fix without running a factory reset. 

The NPS Student Technology Acceptable Use Guidelines (NSTAUG) outlines the district’s expectations that “vandalizing school technology or online resources by causing physical damage, reconfiguring the computer system, or destroying data” is prohibited. As school-issued computers are school property, NPS should have complete jurisdiction over them, just as they do over any other take-home material.

That being said, it is important to acknowledge that computers are not textbooks; they are expensive machines that give students access to the vastness of the internet — a privilege that students shouldn’t forget. 

Students should understand that although their Chromebook may grant them access to the depths of the internet, the school-issued computers’ main purpose is for academics, and downloading content such as movies or video games can disrupt a student’s work ethic, which goes against the values of the NSTAUG. 

This is not to say a student should not be allowed to watch Youtube or log into their Netflix account while on a school-issued computer, but they must understand that the computer’s main purpose is for academics.

The school also monitors students’ Chromebook data so that, if necessary, they can forward any incriminating evidence to law enforcement, if the event arises.  According to NASTAUG, “NPS reserves the right to access and monitor all use of technology and online resources … communication, including text and images, may be disclosed to law enforcement or other third parties without the prior consent of the sender or receiver.” All data from school-issued technology is copied and stored on servers as it can be used as evidence in the event that law enforcement needs to get involved. 

A school-issued computer entrusted to a student for the purposes of elevating academic opportunities and performance should not be used as a gateway for inappropriate activities. In essence, if students wouldn’t want  their parents and teachers to know what they’re doing, then it should not be done on school technology. 

The school tracks student data to prevent inappropriate behavior and to protect students from malware, scams and account information leakage. Monitoring or even banning some searches reduces the risk of students accidentally making their computers vulnerable, which in turn saves the school from potentially costly damages.

It is helpful for me to have a designated place where I can keep my school work, without it getting in the way of my day-to-day computer activity. Using my school-issued Chromebook keeps me on track and organized. As students, we are lucky to be given these tools throughout our time at South, and though we may find the monitorization of these computers annoying or unnecessary, we must keep in mind their intended purposes. The academic benefits that the school-issued devices provide is worth the surveillance. 

NO – Annika Engelbrecht

From the hours spent binging Netflix to scavenging for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe, it’s no secret that computers log our daily activity. That being said, South having access to our data is a violation of privacy. South should not have access to student data on school-issued devices because it infringes on students’ privacy, completely obliterating the boundaries between students’ school and personal lives. 

Many school districts across the U.S. monitor student activity through surveillance systems that scan for potentially dangerous activity through keywords in files, emails or chat messages, which eliminates the context of the original search. For instance, if a student is writing a terrorism essay, their searches for information on the Taliban or Al-Qaeda would be flagged, even though it’s schoolwork since the system doesn’t understand the reason behind the student’s searches. 

Some software programs even automatically alert authorities without checking in with a school. Authorities then can end up approaching a situation poorly. But on the other hand, if administrators are notified of every red flag, false alerts can waste the administration’s time and money. 

While tracking sent emails, keystrokes and search history is already intrusive, the built-in software systems that schools impose can further encroach upon students’ privacy. 

As one of the many students whose school-issued Chromebook is their primary device, giving the school a window into my private life is frightening. I want to maintain my privacy, even if my activity wouldn’t arouse suspicion. 

The idea behind school surveillance of our Chromebooks — that students who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear — is detached from reality. There are numerous cases where someone may want to protect information from others without malicious intent, like scheduling a doctor’s appointment or researching personal health issues. 

A study in 2016 by Jon Penney, a legal academic and social scientist, showed that when a group of people knew that they were a part of the observation, they censored their searches more often out of worry of persecution. Like in Penney’s results, censorship of students also stifles intellectual freedom, creating a culture of fear, where researching certain topics is met with punishment, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization that works to preserve the rights of individuals. 

 The Surveillance Self-Defense, an online guide created to help individuals protect their privacy, states that many surveillance programs track private chat messages. Unlike our searches or assignments, our messages are often to friends or family and can include information on relationships and family drama or aspects of our day. To me, having chats about our day-to-day lives monitored feels like something straight out of a science fiction novel.  

Above all, the relationship between faculty and students is built on trust. Students have always been encouraged to speak to teachers about issues if needed, but if students constantly feel uncomfortable with admin and with being in school, then the fostered trust between students and faculty will disappear, and could even make some students not want to come into the building. 

The device surveillance, however well-intentioned, could make students feel that their entire school is out to get them. 

Student surveillance systems, though intended with the important purpose to protect school property, drastically violate students’ privacy, which is far more important. These systems can considerably harm students by taking away their rights, subjecting them to constant monitoring, and in some cases, revealing personal and private information to the school or public. Although many students read books like “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451” in school, South is nowhere near a dystopian society, so we shouldn’t be subjected to similar surveillance.