The ugly truth behind UK schools monitoring students’ keyword searches

You should never have to read a newspaper from another country to find out what is happening in your own country, but I had to read Al Jazeera English to learn about this:

UK: Keyword warning software in schools raises red flag
Education Pro enables teachers to monitor students’ online activity and sends “violation” alerts over trigger terms.

Schoolchildren in the UK who search for words such as “caliphate” and the names of Muslim political activists on classroom computers risk being flagged as potential supporters of terrorism by monitoring software being marketed to teachers to help them spot students at risk of radicalisation.

The “radicalisation keywords” library has been developed by the software company Impero as an add-on to its existing Education Pro digital classroom management tool to help schools comply with new duties requiring them to monitor children for “extremism”, as part of the government’s Prevent counterterrorism strategy.

According to Impero about 40 percent of schools in the UK already use Education Pro, although a pilot version of the radicalisation library has so far only been rolled out in a few schools.

Read the full story here.

There is a lot that bothers me about this, and which should bother you too.

First, I feel betrayed as a parent. Every August my child brings a letter home from school which she must sign and return. It’s the school’s “internet policy”: a stern but common-sense list of rules children must follow online and on school computers. For example, they promise not to reveal their full names online, and to tell a teacher if anyone says something that upsets them. The policy is all about their obligations and responsibilities. I don’t recall ever seeing anything on that document saying “your child’s Google searches will be monitored on active suspicion of terroristic intentions.” As this is (apparently) a matter of national security, consent is irrelevant in any case as all data must be scrutinised.

Second, the fact that this system is in place in English schools matters not. From my work in a Scottish Parliamentary liaison group I know that matters of defence and security override the devolution of education. If they want to put this system into place in Scottish schools, again, consent is irrelevant.

Name that book.
Name that book.

Third, this system imposes a chilling effect on young minds. A student doing innocent online research to try to make sense of what is happening in this strange and scary world will now automatically generate a possible terrorism indicator. Obviously a teacher should have the common sense to know their students. Unfortunately some teachers are paranoid, bigoted idiots. In practice, race, gender, and religion will be seen as supplementary evidence of terroristic intentions.

Fourth, we see yet more of the now-familiar tactic of spinning unhealthy digital legislation into something that people asked for (emphasis mine):

Sally-Ann Griffiths, Impero’s e-safety development manager, said the keywords library had been compiled in response to requests from teachers for technological tools to help them fulfil their Prevent duties. Impero also offers keywords libraries for topics such as eating disorders, bullying and grooming. “It’s not about spying; it is about safeguarding children. A lot of teachers are very nervous about the new duty that is being put on them. They feel a great sense of responsibility because they don’t want to end up criminalising children or making wrong judgement calls,” Griffiths told Al Jazeera.

In other words, the online surveillance is a byproduct of statutory “safeguarding” duties that have been placed upon teachers which go far beyond education. Teachers are terrified of being held legally liable for a child’s moral failure, and they have had to cover their backsides. Sound familiar? It should: that’s the reality of Scotland’s Named Person legislation. This was the exact point teachers made on Call Kaye on 7 October. The only way Scottish teachers are going to be able to teach and comply with their “safeguarding” duties at the same time will be to install all of the keyword libraries on all school computers. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see schools requiring parents to install the filters at home.

And finally, it’s that nature of legal backside-covering – rather than early intervention – which shows how silly this is. The one pupil in a million who could become radicalised is going to be doing the most frightening online searches at home or on their mobile, not on a school PC requiring an easily monitored login account. It’s more evidence, as if we needed any, that the people who make digital laws don’t actually use the web.

I’m glad that Open Rights Group is looking into the issue and I would encourage teachers, and teaching unions, to speak up and speak out. No child is born a criminal, but keyword surveillance in schools treats them like they already are.

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.