By Mary O’KEEFE
Since George Orwell’s novel “1984,” the term “Big Brother is watching you” has been used to describe everything from over zealous camera placements in cities to McCarthyism. The term has now been updated to reflect the monitoring of Facebook, Twitter and social media used by local kids attending Glendale Unified School District.
GUSD has contracted with Geo Listening, a company that has made what most would call an invasion of privacy a nationwide business. The company monitors what students are saying on social media and then reports back to the district any worrisome dialogue.
On the surface, it may sound like straight up abuse of privacy, but the district is monitoring information that is open to the public. The information is what any parent, teacher, principal or law enforcement officer could easily find.
“They are able to drop in only to public access [posting],” said Dr. Richard Sheehan, GUSD superintendent. “They access things that are sent out globally. If someone has a Tweet and doesn’t block followers or has a Facebook and has not turned it private [they can see it].”
The reason this is being done, according to Sheehan, is for the safety of the children.
The process used by Geo Listening will hit on specific words, like depressed, suicide, gun, knife and marijuana to name a few. Those who are monitoring are not counselors but are simply “listening” for specific words. They then pass that information on to the district that in turn passes it to the specific schools.
“If they see something like, ‘If my parents see this they are going to kill me,’ they know that is different than someone [stating] ‘I am depressed’,” Sheehan said. “[Geo Listening listeners] are trained on key words. It is not any different than if we get a tip from a parent who calls us and tells us that they heard [or read online] that high school kids are having a party.”
Sheehan added the monitoring is on a larger scale than has been done in the past when students, teachers or whoever read something on social media and then shared it with administrators. However, due to budget cuts, there are less people to do the same amount of work, much less more work. For example, there used to be two school resource officers who covered Rosemont Middle School and CVHS; now there is one. That is one less trained person who could help monitor social media.
“Going back to when I was a high school principal and the school was having walkouts, we monitored My Space,” he said.
Sheehan and his staff discovered through My Space posting when the walkouts were scheduled and the five students who were leaders of the movement. They called the students in and spoke to them to find out what their concerns were.
The newest monitoring is in part due to the recent student suicides but also to act as an extra pair of eyes for other issues including bullying.
Privacy concerns may not be so much about the listening in as the follow up.
“Personally, I feel it does border on creepy, that these companies are looking up social networking sites,” said Ben Campos, CVHS senior. “Regardless, the benefits outweigh the creepy.”
He added if someone posted on Tumbler that they are depressed or even suicidal, most who would see it, even if they were a “friend,” wouldn’t do anything.
“But if the school does follow through, they could help this person get through it,” he said.
It is the follow up that is the key to justifying the funds the district is paying Geo Listening, about $40,000.
Sheehan said any information that causes concern would be shared with the specific school and then treated in the same way it would be if the concern were brought to the staff’s attention directly. The student will be called in, the parent will be notified and they will work together.
“If they are just going to monitor without doing anything with this information … I don’t see there is anything useful coming out of that,” Campos said. “They will just gather a bunch of information. Unless they are going to act upon it, I don’t see how it is going to benefit anyone.”
And that seems to be the concern that has been in debate for years. Is monitoring someone’s personal conversation even if, like in this case, it is on a public forum worth losing privacy to gain safety or maybe save a life? And will those who listen in actually follow through to help those in need?
“I hope so,” Campos said. “Let’s say I am reluctantly optimistic.”