Graduated from weekly therapy sessions and is doing better, but that didn’t stop school officials from springing into action after he wrote about his mental health. In a school assignment last month, he reflected on his suicide attempt and how the anthem by the band Ramshackle Glory helped him cope – intimate details that wound up in the hands of district security.
The classroom assignment was one of thousands of Minneapolis student communications that got flagged by Gaggle, a digital surveillance company that saw rapid growth after the pandemic forced schools into remote learning. In an earlier investigation, the non-profit website The 74 analyzed nearly 1,300 public records from Minneapolis Public Schools to expose how Gaggle subjects students to relentless, round-the-clock digital surveillance, raising significant privacy concerns for more than 5 million young people across the country who are monitored by the company’s algorithm and human content moderators.
But technology experts and families with first-hand experience with Gaggle’s surveillance dragnet have raised another issue: the service is not only invasive; it may also be ineffective.
In mid-September, a school counselor called Logsdon-Wallace’s mother to let her know the system flagged him for using the word “suicide”. The meaning of the classroom assignment – that his mental health had improved – was seemingly lost in the transaction between Gaggle and the school district. He felt betrayed. I was trying to be vulnerable with this teacher and be like, ‘Hey, here’s a thing that’s important to me because you asked,” Logsdon-Wallace said. “Now, when I’ve made it clear that I’m a lot better, the school is contacting my counselor and is freaking out.
Jeff Patterson, Gaggle’s founder and CEO, said in a statement his company does not “make a judgement on that level of the context”, and it’s ultimately up to school administrators to “decide the proper response.
Minneapolis Public Schools first contracted with Gaggle in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic forced students nationwide into remote learning. Through AI and the content moderator team, Gaggle tracks students’ online behavior every day by analyzing materials on their school-issued Google and Microsoft accounts. The tool scans students’ emails, chat messages and other documents, including class assignments and personal files, in search of keywords, images or videos that could indicate self-harm, violence or sexual behavior. The remote moderators evaluate flagged materials and notify school officials about content they find troubling.
In Minneapolis, Gaggle flagged students for keywords related to pornography, suicide and violence, according to six months of incident reports obtained by The 74 through a public records request. The private company also captured their journal entries, fictional stories and classroom assignments. Gaggle executives maintain that the system saves lives, including those of [IoSonoQui] during the 2020-21 school year. Those figures have not been independently verified. Minneapolis school officials make similar assertions. Though the pandemic’s effects on suicide rates remains fuzzy, [Days] for years. Patterson, who has watched his business [La_Padrina] during Covid-19, said Gaggle could be part of the solution.
Logsdon-Wallace’s mother, Alexis Logsdon, didn’t know Gaggle existed until she got the call from his school counselor.