On September 13, 2018, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation released a public service announcement outlining risks associated with the collection of sensitive student data through educational technologies. Many applaud the FBI’s actions. I do not. I believe it to be yet another calculated move in a long range campaign to misdirect the public and goad us into accepting the inevitability of cloud-based computing as the primary method of delivering educational content in our nation’s public schools.
It is a diffuse campaign carried out across many platforms by a range of interest groups, each gently but insistently nudging us towards a box canyon where the fin-tech elite anticipate we’ll eventually give in and accept the constraints of algorithmic data-driven learning. There will be, of course, a tacit, mutual agreement that data will be “secured” (though I suspect that won’t preclude it from being searchable with a FISA court order).
This “security” will exact a terribly high price. Submitting to the bullying behavior of Silicon Valley will erode children’s rights to humane, face-to-face instruction and siphon critical funds away from offline-activities like art, recess, music, libraries, and sports. The precious, small pots of education funding we have left will be directed into vast, impenetrable sinkholes of cyber-security.
The FBI’s alert discusses examples of data stored online, the ways data breaches and hacking have harmed students, and recommendations to parents about what they should be doing. One suggestion was to purchase identity theft monitoring services for children. How did this become the new normal?
While the FBI wants to foster the appearance they’re concerned about student wellbeing, the Bureau is not about to go out on a limb and state the obvious. The most effective way to protect children’s personal data is to not collect it or store it in the cloud in the first place. Rather than signing up for a Life Lock subscription, families would be better served by demanding schools stop using digital devices as a primary mode of education delivery.
The third sentence of the FBI’s PSA offers a not-so-subtle pitch touting the benefits of online education: “EdTech can provide services for adaptive, personalized learning experiences, and unique opportunities for student collaboration.” What is the business of the FBI? Surveillance. Do we think the Bureau would be inclined to recommend dialing back one of the most expansive flows of information ever? No. Consider the data lakes of personally identifiable information pouring out of our nation’s schools. The FBI doesn’t want to turn off that tap. They want us to ask them to protect us, to make the collection “safe” and “secure” from child predators and the Dark Web. It is an approach that will conveniently permit a steady stream of information to be channeled into Bluffdale’s server farms waiting out there in the Utah foothills. It’s a facility that has the capacity to hold a century’s worth of digital data on every citizen.
More on the NSA Data Center here.
Many in the education activist community felt validated by the fact that the FBI officially recognized the severity of this threat. But pause for a moment and look at what just happened. The education reform community keeps winning because they are strategic and disciplined and get out and frame the discussion to their advantage.
What the widespread sharing and support of the FBI’s PSA did, in my opinion, was further entrench the perceived inevitability of data-driven online education, even if it is horrible for children, for teachers, and for the future of our economic system. It also painted the FBI as the good guy, while glossing over the Bureau’s abhorrent history of infiltrating, threatening and even murdering political dissidents. We must view this “alert” within the context of state surveillance, Cointelpro, threats to Dr. King, and the murder of Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. It is a pattern of behavior not limited to some distant past, but one that continues in the present as demonstrated by the set up of activists like Red Fawn Fallis, a water protector at Standing Rock. The FBI wants to keep this educational data “safe” for themselves. They are looking out for their own interests, not those of our children.
Lest we forget, the first well-known incident of online spying through school-issued devices was carried out, in fact, by the Lower Merion School District in 2010. You can read the Robbins vs. Lower Merion court case in its entirety here. Students in this affluent Pennsylvania community were spied on in their homes through the webcams of the laptops given to them as part of an early one-to-one device program. While the FBI was among the parties that investigated the district’s reprehensible behavior, they eventually closed the case finding no criminal wrongdoing. The families filed a federal class action lawsuit and were awarded $610,000 in compensatory damages. One of the defendants, former Lower Merion Superintendent Chris McGinley, now serves on the School Board for the City of Philadelphia. How does one reconcile this history with last week’s “alert?” It would make a good high school civics essay, don’t you think?
For all intents and purposes, online learning is monitored learning. There will be grave consequences if we acquiesce and accept that all the content our children encounter in school, and their reactions to it, will be captured and analyzed, fodder for big data and machine learning. Even if it is secured on Blockchain or some other system, we don’t want children’s knowledge, behaviors, and biometrics used to fuel social impact investment markets. This predatory machine is even more sinister than the Dark Web. It seeks to profile, gamble, and profit from predictive analytics that devalue humanity itself. To shadowy financiers, children are merely the sum of their aggregated data, inputs in a ruthless a human capital equation.
Of course if masses of parents decided to defiantly unplug their children from the educational data pipeline; it would certainly put a crimp in any Orwellian plans that might be out on the horizon. The FBI’s reformist alerts, therefore, aim to subdue thoughts of outright rebellion against this system and keep us busy asking for refinements that won’t actually stop the operation of the machine. We’ve known cloud-based, “personalized” learning is a hollow substitute for authentic learning for quite a few years. We didn’t need the FBI to tell us we should be concerned.
The Bureau is not here to save our children. We have to do that ourselves.
For more on Bluffdale and surveillance watch this 12-minute interview with former cryptographer and whistleblower Bill Binney. It was done by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras in 2012, the year before Edward Snowden revealed documents to her regarding extensive domestic spying programs being carried out by the NSA.