School district hires company to follow kids' Facebook, Twitter

The Glendale Unified School District in Southern California outsources keeping tabs on troublemakers as well as identifying kids in trouble. At least these are its justifications.

Authorities like to be tuned in. Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Safety has rather become the mantra of authorities over the last few years.

Government exists, so we're told, to keep the people safe. As opposed to, say, happy, employed, strong, proud or free.

A school district in Southern California is also committed to the safety of its kids. And, given that social media sites are where kids are at these days, it's decided to keep tabs on every single public post its kids are making.

Naturally, the Glendale Unified School District doesn't have the time to do this itself. So it's hired an outside company to do its tab-keeping for it.

As CBS Los Angeles reports, the district chose Geo Listening, a company that specializes in following kids' Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube feeds.

"The whole purpose is student safety," the district's superintendent Richard Sheehan told CBS.

So now every single piece of social blurting is now being watched by Big Geo.

Sheehan explained that the system works by looking for keywords. He gave examples of how potentially suicidal kids have been the subject of interventions thanks to the system.

Some, though, might feel a touch chilled by his description of the system's breadth.

"We do monitor on and off campus, but we do pay attention during school hours. We do pay more attention to the school computers," he said.

In legal terms, any public posting is fair game. The Geo Listening Web site helpfully explains: "The students we can help are already asking for you. All of the individual posts we monitor on social media networks are already made public by the students themselves. Therefore, no privacy is violated."

Every single public posting made by every one of the district's 13,000 students is being monitored, although the company insists it doesn't peek at "privatized pages, SMS, MMS, email, phone calls, voicemails."

Geo Listening says that its role is to provide "timely" information, so that a school can act, whether it's a case of bullying, potential self-harm, vandalism, substance abuse or truancy.

However, the company is surely able to build up a huge trove of information about all individuals which, at least theoretically, might prove to be valuable (to someone) in the future.

What lazy, neurotic employer wouldn't love to know if a potential hire was a school bully a few years ago? Might the employer be able to contact the school district and demand a record of all social media activity that took place in a potential employee's youth?

When kids grow up, there will be parts of their lives they want to erase. Yet here will be records that keep that past alive.

The twin-pronged fork of surveillance is currently being examined for the potential of its worth.

The problem is that, ultimately, there are no guarantees -- be it Google, the NSA or Geo Listening -- about what information is actually being collected and how it might be used.

Why do you think that kids (and Wall Street) are so enamored with Snapchat?

 

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