British school children subjected to NSA-style surveillance

The idea of being monitored, spied upon, surveilled, call it what you will, is something we are gradually becoming used to. CCTV cameras abound, we now know that our private communication could be intercepted at any time, and god only knows what else is going on unbeknownst to us. The plots of Person of Interest look positively tame compared to what is actually happening. Look, a whole introductory paragraph about modern-day surveillance and not one reference to Big Brother, 1984 or George Orwell. Oh ... damn.

But it seems that it is not just potential terrorists, criminals and other ne'er do wells who might feel concerned about who is reading their emails and monitoring their online activity. Hundreds of schools up and down the UK are actively monitoring the online communication of pupils using methods not too far removed from those employed by the NSA on a global scale.

The monitoring is performed using software from Impero Solutions, enabling schools to very closely monitor how pupils are using the school network. Many schools have implemented policies that place restrictions on the types of websites that can be accessed from school computers, but the latest techniques go even further. The e-safety feature of Impero Solutions Education Pro package constantly monitors network communication for a customizable list of keywords. This enables schools to be on the lookout for problems with bullying, but also to monitor students who might be at risk of self-harming or committing suicide. The same software has also been used in the US to help combat gangs.

The software can be tweaked as required, but it looks out for obvious keywords as well as slang and acronyms that might be used to try to disguise threats. We're all aware of text speak like PMSL, LOL and BRB, but this is a constantly evolving lexicon that can include terms such as DIRL meaning die in real life, and other such bleak phrases. As pointed out by the Guardian the software can be tailored as required, but can be on the watch for seemingly innocent words such as Bio-oil which could be indicative of self-harm -- this is a product traditionally used to treat post-pregnancy stretch marks, but has found a new market more recently.

While there are probably few pupils who are particularly welcoming of the monitoring, it is clearly something that has value. Being able to look out for tell-tale signs that a depressed student may be on the brink of taking things too far is something that has simply not been available to previous generations. In a sense it is a microcosm of the NSA's activities, but this use of technology is likely to be viewed rather more favourably than indiscriminate global web surveillance.

As is so often the case, context it everything. Looking at how technology can be used to help protect children and ease social problems just goes to show that surveillance is not necessarily a bad thing -- but it is open to abuse and needs to be monitored. Which raises the question ... who watches the watchers?

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