Student Surveillance Under the Spotlight: Part 1
23 Oct 2018
In this special two-part focus on cyber in education, we examine student online monitoring programs, some of which are being trialled around the country. We speak with two experts who each have a different approach to help keep students safe while spending time online.
A 2017 survey
conducted by youth mental health service organisation, ReachOut, found parents
are more concerned about their teenage children using social media and
technology than drugs or alcohol.
One possible balm for those concerns is eSafe Global. The UK-based company works with schools to monitor students on digital devices in order to identify their problems early and get help to those who need it.
While there are concerns surveillance programs could actually make students more vulnerable (see part two of Student Surveillance Under the Spotlight), proponents believe the technology has a big role to play in improving their safety online.
eSafe Global monitors between 750,000 and 800,000 students and school staff in the UK, as well as a growing number of students here in Australia where trials are underway.
Schools who sign up for the eSafe service have software installed on digital devices that enables activity on those devices to be monitored. Any suspicious activity triggers an alert at eSafe headquarters in Manchester, England, which is then analysed by the company’s behavioural experts. It’s their job to determine if the activity is of genuine concern or is a false positive. Genuine concerns are categorised into threat levels; the most serious are dealt with by phone in real time, those deemed least serious by email in a weekly report to the school.
After forty years working in IT, eSafe Global Managing Director Mark Donkersley was approached to take the vision of monitoring digital activity in schools from concept to reality. That was in 2009. Today, according to eSafe Global’s website, as well as managing the company he also provides briefings on safety in digital environments to parliamentary select committees in the UK, and to the eSafety Commissioner in Australia.
“Our view from the UK,” he says, “is that in Australia you have some great programs to try and help young people when a particular condition has been identified. What you don’t really have is that stage one identification of the problem. So, in a school, you’re relying on the eyes and ears of teaching staff. Or maybe a parent comes in and expresses concern over their child. Or the social services people make the school aware there’s a problem, or the police. You’re not, as a country, tapping into the very rich seam of behaviour markers.
“There’s a lot going on in Australia with your people that you aren’t actually aware of,” he says. “You’re aware of problems you can see currently, but there’s another area that you’re missing. And that’s the difference between Australia and the UK. The UK has a very good approach and mechanism and ethos about using all available sources of information to get visibility of issues and safeguarding risks affecting young people.” And he says, “the IT environment within schools is a brilliant source of early warning markers.
“Identifying the person who’s starting to get anxious and depressed today is better than identifying that person when they’re starting to self-harm. You’ve had some incredibly harrowing situations with young people who have gone on and committed suicide, as we have in England and Wales. Someone doesn’t wake up today feeling anxious and depressed and commit suicide tomorrow,” he says. “There’s an incredibly long lead-time in most instances. Two, three, maybe even four years. What we’re about is early identification.”
The eSafe technology is effectively a detection mechanism, according to Mr Donkersley. It has a sophisticated image detection engine with the ability to understand images on a computer screen. “Like the human eye, it’s able to look at an image and say, right, this is suspicious, or pornographic, for example. If it sees that, it jumps into life and takes a screen shot.”
The second way the technology can identify potential issues is through its word and contextual phrase detection engine. It detects trigger words and phrases that are typed into a keyboard or that appear in documents or on websites the user is visiting.
But eSafe is more than technology, according to Mr Donkersley. It’s what happens after suspicious activity has been detected that’s most important.
“After something has been captured it’s then reviewed by a specialist team of behaviour experts,” he says. “These are people who may have come out of the medical profession so they have specialist knowledge of mental health conditions. They may be specialists in bullying, cyber bullying. They may have come out of the criminal justice system so they’re familiar with grooming, child abuse, that sort of thing.”
He says the team reviews each alert in context to help them assess what the appropriate response should be. “They can then say, right, this is something that’s indicative of someone who is very anxious or depressed so we’ll escalate that to the school. Or, this is a student writing about a play or doing some course work, that’s not a problem so we’ll throw that one in the bin.”
The technology can detect a range of activities from criminal activities to mental health issues, and things like, “bullying, self-harm, pornography, threats of violence. There are some quite obscure ones such as female genital mutilation.”
He says, “40% of all behaviour we identify in schools in the UK relates to mental health. In Australia I think it’s 38%. It is the single biggest category, everything else pales into insignificance in comparison.”
Crucial in identifying these behaviours is eSafe’s threat library. The company has people regularly cataloguing images, words, phrases, code words and slang, in multiple languages, that could indicate a problem.
“Our threat library is dynamically tuned almost on a daily basis. If a new code word for heroin appears somewhere in the world, for example, we absorb that into the threat library. Then we’re looking for that code word being used by someone when they’re writing on a computer or in a chat sequence or whatever.”
There’s no denying the goal of keeping students safe is worthy. But are surveillance programs the only way to achieve that goal? Some in the community feel surveillance is too drastic a measure, and they’re concerned about possible negative impacts. The potential for privacy breaches ranks high among those concerns.
Mr Donkersley says “In the UK, we have data protection legislation that is arguably the more stringent data protection legislation that exists in the world. Effectively, our Australian school customers are sitting behind that. They can have the confidence that the approach we adopt is conducted in a very stringent, data secure, data protected environment, by people who are a bunch of specialists in their particular roles.”
Everyone being monitored is aware they are being monitored, and consent has been given, according to Mr Donkersley. “We’re monitoring the school’s digital environment. If someone brings a computer into school they are given permission to connect their computer to the school’s digital environment, and there is a behavioural code of conduct that is expected. All we’re doing, effectively, is watching for harmful, inappropriate behaviour in that environment.
“And when it comes to privacy,” he says, “everybody is entitled to privacy accept when they are conducting illegal, criminal behaviour, when they’re threatening or harming someone else, or they’re contemplating harm to themselves.”Concerns about privacy are understandable, he says, “but we sit on the right side of that line. The more we’re able to educate the community in Australia about what we do, and how we do it, then perhaps that fear will be mitigated.”
In an article published on The Educator online in February 2018,
eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, said that while such monitoring technology can play a helpful role in promoting students’ online safety and well-being, they should be viewed as “one tool within a multi-faceted approach to online safety.”
“It’s important that care is taken to ensure there is not an over-reliance on technological tools, but that schools, parents and communities have the best possible programs and practices in place to encourage education and prevention strategies addressing potential online harms.”
“It is crucial that young people learn essential life skills such as resilience, respect, responsibility and critical reasoning in order to thrive both online and offline.”Grant added that it is incumbent upon schools to ensure due diligence is undertaken as to the relevant privacy and other legal considerations when implementing technological tools that involve monitoring students.