On April 6, 2015, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) contracted with Texas computer security service, Snaptrends to monitor social-media messages posted from school campuses, from students or staff. Snaptrend’s website reads: “Pioneering Location-Based Social Media Discovery – Cut through the noise of social chatter and quickly identify actionable insights.”
In response, Manatee County Attorney, Scott Martin has published a thoughtful and compelling article on his law firm’s blog. The original post can be found here.
Big Brother or School Safety? District Monitoring of Social Media Sites
Florida’s Orange County School District recently announced that it will utilize automated software to monitor the social media pages of staff and students – sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The ostensible reason for this broadscale monitoring is “to proactively prevent, intervene and monitor situations that may impact students and staff.”
Orange County is apparently following a recent trend of law enforcement agencies who use this type of software to detect and prevent crime. However, I see a number of troubling issues with this approach in the context of a school district.
It’s one thing for a District to access the social media pages of staff and students as a tool to address an existing problem or specific complaint. Checking specific students’ social media pages might be an appropriate course in, for example, a District investigation into online bullying. A District might also be justified in checking an employee’s social media pages in an investigation into whether an employee improperly used sick leave on a particular day. (Free Legal Advice: Posting a Facebook picture of you on vacation on days when you called in sick is a very bad idea.).
However, Snaptrends is a type of social media scraper/aggregator that collects social media information in mass. The data are scooped up by an automated process without regard to the nature of the content – good, bad, or indifferent. The information collected is then analyzed according to parameters set by the District and made available to the District for review and further drill-down. Evidently, the data can in many instances be mapped to show exactly where the information originated.
The intent here is for the District to arm itself with information to prevent an issue before it becomes a problem. In the context of imminent harm to student safety, that makes much sense. One can hardly argue against a District doing whatever is necessary to prevent something on the scale of a school shooting. One can also see reason in using social media metadata (not personally identifiable data) to help Districts with resource allocation to combat major social issues like teen pregnancy, gang association, or illegal drug use.
But what guarantees are there that the social media information collected by the District will be limited to those benevolent purposes? What policies are in place? Who can access the data? What conclusions are being drawn from the data? Who is drawing those conclusions? What standards are they using in making decisions based on captured data? These are all questions that should be answered to the public’s satisfaction before any such tool is put in place.
I also question the privacy implications of use of such a tool. What if social media chatter suggests that two teachers went on vacation together? Or that a principal is gay? Or that a student owns a gun? All of the aforementioned activity is perfectly legal and should not in itself result in any intervention by the District. However, Districts may use the information provided by Snaptrends to bootstrap into further invasion of privacy.
The District might, for example, use these benign comments as justification for a formal investigation to determine whether there’s a “larger problem” under the surface. Our vacationing teachers could be having extramarital affairs. Maybe our gay principal is interested in sex with minors. Maybe our student owns an assault rifle. We won’t know unless the District formally investigates, right?
Even more insidious, the District might create a “watch list” of potentially problematic staff and students who will be subjected to more intense monitoring going forward. A District would do well to avoid this type of McCarthyism and invitation to challenges based on the chilling of constitutional rights. Guarantees against this sort of policing should be made crystal clear in a written District policy.
Also, I can’t help but wonder whether Snaptrends appreciates that contracting with a Florida state agency subjects it to Florida’s laws regarding public records. Any information it collects that meets the definition of “public record” will now be accessible by any member of the public unless it falls under a statutory exemption. Since these data are being collected in connection with the District’s official business, it appears to me that the definition of public record is met. I suspect that any such request would be met with resistance based on “trade secret” or “security” exemptions provided under Florida law. Either way, I predict lawsuits in the near future.
- This is a copy of the 15-page service contract between OCPS and Snaptrends, executed on April 6, 2015: OCPS Snaptrends Contract 040615
- See Exhibit A – Scope of Services for details on the services Snaptrends will perform for OCPS’ security monitoring.
- See Exhibit B – Fees for Services
Serious questions are being asked by concerned parents and teachers in Orange County now.
Opt Out Orlando’s Cindy Hamilton will address these questions and more with the OCPS board at the June 9 school board meeting. If this is a concern for you, you should plan to attend.
Edgewater High School (Map/Directions)
Mar 18 2015: Pearson admits to monitoring students’ social media use during its online tests – The Guardian
Nov 26 2014: Should Schools Monitor Students’ Social Media Use? – Insurance Journal
Sep 9 2014: Mark Cuban: Stop Making This Mistake on Social Media | Inc. Media – Mark Cuban
Oct 2 2013: Students in social media: There’s monitoring & then there’s monitoring – ConnectSafely.org
Sep 12 2013: Should schools monitor kids on social media? – HLNTV.com