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The surveillance-industrial complex is targeting our kids

Minnetonka High School
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson
Minnetonka Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson signed a three-year contract, at $23,500 annually, with a company that pledged to alert the district to “threats shared publicly.”

A few months ago, MinnPost reported on a concerning contract between Social Sentinel (a surveillance company) and Minnetonka Public Schools that largely went under the radar. A growing number of surveillance and data-sharing efforts have emerged in the Twin Cities in recent years — using a mix of tactics to spy on youth. Tapping into public fears related to school shootings, bullying, and unfounded fears regarding the “threat of terrorism,” surveillance efforts have become rationalized as an acceptable prevention practice at the expense of young people’s civil rights and free expression. The idea that patterns of behavior can be tracked and used to identify the “warning signs” of potential violence continues to have a firm footing within our school system.

Tracking of behavior classification, intervention, and academic performance are now becoming the basis for surveillance of youth with unaddressed needs. Measures like these further distance us from addressing the root causes that fuel crime and incarceration. It is an investment in the permanence of rigid inequities and continued reliance on punitive measures. In lieu of an investment in qualitative approaches to community and relationship, there is now an incentive to militarize the relationship between young people and those who’ve promised to protect them. What this does is serve the interest of corporate analytics companies and law enforcement bodies by well-meaning school administrators who are in search of low-cost ways to “promote safety” at the expense of students’ greater well-being. The missing piece is the aim to address the needs of children/youth and their families. In these quiet, seemingly innocuous ways, the unobjectionable language of surveillance has crept into our schools.

Here are some examples of how surveillance has materialized in our schools in addition to Minnetonka Public Schools’ agreement with social media surveillance firm Social Sentinel:

    • Paul Public Schools signed the Joint Powers youth data-sharing agreement, which was formally dissolved in 2019 after fierce community protest.
    • The Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program (also called Building Community Resilience) had a surveillance component involving Minneapolis Public Schools.
    • The presence of School Resource Officers (SROs) in our schools involves a partnership between the police department and the school district that places law enforcement officers in schools. While not formally part of the predictive analytics system, SROs are part of the surveillance infrastructure that directly link schools with law enforcement entities. Despite how the partnership is branded, these individuals serve as police officers primarily. Community activists and the Legal Rights Center continue to raise questions about how children and youth can be subject to police interrogation without the presence of an attorney — denying them basic civil rights outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
    • And there may be more. The challenge with surveillance practices, often dubbed “monitoring” efforts, is that they operate in such insidious ways and systems are not always transparent about them.

We believe these aforementioned programs are indicative of surveillance systems due to a number of characteristics, including:

  • Data-sharing practices with other agencies/departments, further putting youth/children at risk by exposing them to others whose bottom lines reflects other interests (policing, detention related to immigration, and/or commercial interests).
  • A false belief that we as a society can identify and understand complex human behaviors through predictive measures, which are often racist and inconclusive. It’s worth noting that the capacity for human error or analytical error remains high and unreliable as a predictive function whether in the prevention of extreme violence or health care.
  • The increased reliance on algorithmic “decisions” that minimize the discretion of educators, behavior specialists, and peers in determining a care plan for students in need of higher levels of support.

The stated purpose behind many of these efforts is to streamline the availability of services for communities experiencing disparities or inequities. The optimistic take on this would have us believe that the algorithms on which these programs are built are objective and evidence-based. Experience tells us otherwise.

Instead, algorithmic “decisions” are the product of inputs which themselves are premised on biased information, and often lead to silly interpretations. Consider this fact from the Brennan Center for Justice: “Algorithmic tone and sentiment analysis, which senior DHS officials have suggested is being used to analyze social media, is even less accurate. … One tool flagged posts in English by black and Hispanic users — like ‘Bored af den my phone finna die!!!!’ (which can be loosely translated as “I’m bored as f*** and then my phone is going to die”) — as Danish with 99.9 percent confidence.”

Writer and philosopher Emma Goldman once said, “A society gets all the criminals it deserves.” What she meant, of course, is that criminality is defined by the powers-that-be, and in some societies, that they mirror the values, biases, and priorities of those in power. Put simply, what we invest in says a lot about what and who we value, as well as the ways in which conversations around public safety are framed to tee up policies/practices around security. The fact that our schools continue to invest heavily in surveillance efforts says more about our distrust of children/youth and our commitment to cultivating the cradle-to-prison algorithm. Because it is easier to fix “broken people” than to do the work of transforming a broken system, those in power are exploiting the struggles of some students — mostly poor youth of color — to justify disproportionate scrutiny.

Ramla Bile
Ramla Bile
But while the study of predictive analytics continues to reveal errors in our understanding or application of prospective human behaviors/actions, various protocols based on these processes continue to be implemented by law enforcement agencies and health providers, and the methodology is far from vetted and puts our young people at risk of incarceration. Despite the fact that surveillance efforts are not evidence-based from the perspective of preventing violence/harm, we do know data supports the claim that BIPOC are disproportionately targeted by surveillance systems. In a similar way that communities of color in the United States are policed differently from majority-white communities, there’s a deeper concern about who gets targeted under these efforts.

Dominique Diaddigo-Cash
In 2019, the Brennan Center shared findings that a leaked Department of Human Services report “suggests that the administration is considering tagging young Muslim men as ‘at-risk persons.’” And the CVE program, which was piloted in Minneapolis, identified growing a beard, wearing hijab, and frequenting a mosque as potential indicators of “radicalization.” While the program struggled to sustain power over time, it opened the window for greater institutionalized surveillance, which led to the FBI using surveillance and entrapment techniques to target young Somali men as young as 16 in the “Minnesota ISIS trials.” Normalizing surveillance, regardless of how seemingly minimal the intrusion is, exposes a great deal of harm to young people.

In fact, the Brennan Center reports that social media monitoring has been used to target racial and religious minorities, and to police speech that is seen as “dissent.” From the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the current Black Lives Matter movement (labeled “Black identity extremists”), activists have been targeted by law enforcement bodies through surveillance tactics at the expense of the civil, political, and human rights. In the early adoption of programs such as the one in Minnetonka, little consideration has been given to the impact of such programs on the civil rights of children, youth, and their families, particularly since:

  • Surveillance-based approaches within schools undermine the sovereignty of young people, and are often in violation of the civil rights of students.
  • The rights of parents and guardians are also undermined since they don’t know the risk of surveillance when they send their child(ren) to school, and school districts and other participating agencies are not transparent about these activities.

Kids do better when they are connected to caring adults, and when we can create a community of belonging that embraces the whole child. We can’t replace the need for human-to-human connection with analytics systems. And while private corporations rush in with prescribed solutions to the “behavior problem” with no lens for equity or racial analysis on how surveillance works, we’re exposing our children to law enforcement. In addition to grossly violating the privacy of children/youth, we need to acknowledge that surveillance is a form of systemic racism. Institutional surveillance is a leading contributor to mass incarceration. Normalizing such practices minimizes the harmful impact of surveillance.

Ramla Bile is a Twin Cities-based writer and activist who challenges the surveillance apparatus and the ways systems criminalize BIPOC communities. Dominique Diaddigo-Cash is a writer and community organizer whose life and work explores the impacts of state violence on marginalized peoples and identities.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/31/2020 - 03:46 pm.

    Why is anyone surprised? You are the commodity. All of these social media sites and web sites in general are gathering data on you and selling it. Your insurance premiums reflect your lifestyle habits even though they don’t tell you that. They know all about you before you walk in the door. The ads you see are tailored to you and you get ripped off because of it. Not surprising they do the same to kids….there will be databases on all of them and no one bothers to do anything about it.

  2. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 02/01/2020 - 12:04 pm.

    Emma Goldman would agree, systemic surveillance is of the authoritarian implulse and has no place in a truly free, democratic society.

    It is instructive that school administration and many parents, in this age of total surveillance, would rather pay a corporation to spy on students, than say, expand mental health options? Or maybe study the connection between a society that glorifies so much violence, does not question eternal war profiteering, that has given the President near unlimited war powers, and has built the infrastructure of total surveillance, and school shootings?

    The totalitarian impulse is always there. Feed it, and become totalitarian. Or, starve it, seek freedom and embrace democracy. It is a choice.

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