The Surveillance Generation

This op-ed originally appeared in DC Journal on November 10, 2023.

In class, students might learn they have a right to privacy (the Fourth Amendment), but their experience appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

Every day, thousands of students have their privacy violated by attending school. Students walk through AI scanners that evaluate their backpacks, coats and lunch boxes for weapons. Facial recognition software scans their faces and records their biometric information. Their personal files, kept on their school-issued account, are scanned for “concerning” material.

Taking an ends-justify-the-means approach to privacy might provide a false sense of security for some parents and administrators. Still, it comes at the expense of the very kids they aim to protect. Surveys and focus groups reveal that education surveillance has caused students to not only alter their behavior and speech but also lead to early negative interactions with law enforcement from a young age.

What will privacy mean to a generation that was raised in this environment? What would privacy mean for a person who never truly had any?

The Fourth Amendment acknowledges the right of each person to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. This means public officials must have a court-ordered warrant before searching you and your belongings. And while the law applies only to the government, the culture it originated from expected privacy in their personal affairs as well.

It begs the question — if no one understands their right to privacy, will they fight for it as adults?

The market for school safety products and services is lucrative — its major clients are public schools (obviously) and state governments. In 2021, the industry was valued at $3 billion. With numerous stories reporting inaccuracies and even outright failures to ensure student safety, one might wonder if it is worth the price tag.

Utah rejected similar surveillance technology for adults five years ago when the attorney general’s office signed — then later canceled — a $21 million contract with the surveillance company Banjo. Similar to today’s companies that seek state-funded deals, it was revealed that Banjo’s services, which involved massive amounts of data collection from databases, public and private, were never as good as they were advertised to be.

Despite these concerns, companies continue striking new deals funded by taxpayer dollars. In fact, ZeroEyes successfully used an entire school district as its stepping stone to land a contract with the city of Hobbs, New Mexico. This will expand its coverage from 19 schools to a municipality with more than 40,000 people.

As we work toward improving student safety, public officials must think twice before readily handing over millions of dollars to companies offering highly invasive products and services to be used on children — especially when the technology has repeatedly been shown to be ineffective. Parents and community members need to be aware of the unseen costs that such infrastructure has on future generations of Americans. They need to be included in a school’s (or school district’s) decision to adopt such programs.