Harms of edtech surveillance outlined in ACLU report

Threats to student safety and well-being such as school shootings, bullying, self-harm and suicide have led to major investments in educational technology surveillance, but the products and practices meant to protect young people may also cause harm, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In the last two decades, the edtech surveillance sector has grown exponentially and brings in $3.1 billion a year with a projected annual growth rate of 8 percent by “capitalizing on its significant financial resources and political influence” and “controlling the narrative around its products,” the report states.

“These companies flooded school officials with their own biased marketing materials, promoting their surveillance products as highly effective safety interventions that keep students safe, even though such claims lack independent, unbiased substantiating evidence,” according to the report. “The well-funded edtech surveillance industry has likewise benefited from its ability to drown out any discussion of the widespread harms their products cause students.”

Implementing tools to monitor student conversations or using facial recognition may make local educational agencies feel safer but opting to utilize proven interventions — like promoting belonging, offering mental health supports, having anti-bias initiatives in place and implementing stronger building security — is often more beneficial and cost-efficient, the ACLU found in its research.

Key findings

Edtech surveillance companies tend to “make unsubstantiated overly broad and nonspecific claims,” including assertations that they prevent school shootings, bullying, child abuse and harassment and stop sexual abuse, according to the report. However, “in-depth reviews of research literature, including those commissioned by the U.S Department of Justice, and ACLU’s review of the empirical evidence, consistently find a clear lack of evidence that surveillance technology makes schools safer.”

For example, surveillance cameras were present at the scene at eight of the 10 deadliest school shootings in the past 20 years and didn’t prevent the events from taking place, and an investigation by the U.S. Secret Service found that monitoring social media did little to stop planned school shootings. Most were stopped by students reporting concerns to school officials or police, emphasizing the importance of establishing trusting relationships between students, teachers and school staff.

Conversely, there is evidence that surveillance technologies harm students.

“Student surveillance technologies harm all students by: (1) teaching students the wrong lessons about issues like authenticity, risk-taking, and the right to live free from surveillance; (2) undermining their privacy; (3) eroding student trust in teachers, school staff, and administrators; (4) inhibiting students’ ability to engage in self-help; and (5) increasing student fear and criminalize youth,” the report states.

The technology can be especially harmful to already vulnerable groups including students of color, those with disabilities, LGBTQ and nonbinary youth, low-income students, and undocumented students and students with undocumented family members.

Additionally, the ACLU found that spending on edtech surveillance diverts money and human resources away from proven safety measures as well as educational technologies that support student learning like tools to enhance accessibility and remote learning.


Education stakeholders may consider the following recommendations, including:

  • Educating others and advocating for reform
  • Adopting best practices for decision-making at the local level (steps to do this are outlined in the report)
  • Working to pass legislation that requires all schools and LEAs to follow best practices for student surveillance technology decision-making
  • Advocating against the use of student surveillance technology