Over the holidays I was aimlessly scrolling through Facebook. The brightly colored articles and advertisements were swimming together in a conglomeration of reds and muted blues. Abruptly, my glazed eyes snapped into focus. “The Elf on the Shelf is preparing your child to live in a future police state,” claimed a bold headline. I admit, I may have snorted out loud. The Elf on the Shelf, a holiday toy favored by frazzled parents, can be viewed as juvenile and unnecessary, but a totalitarian attack on freedom is a bit of a stretch. As I the scrolled through the article, however, the smirk faded from my face, as I could no longer dismiss the argument as a home-brewed fantasy of an obscure conspiracy theorist.
According to the peculiar mythos of American commercialism, the Elf on the Shelf is a representative from Santa’s workshop, assigned to watch the children in a family for the entirety of the Christmas season, recording their every action for the ultimate judgment of “naughty” or “nice.” Any kid not excited about having a miniature espionage master tailing them for the month of Advent? Well, “The Boss,” as Santa is known, will hear about that too. To any devoted Orwellian: sound familiar? The danger of the Elf is that it blurs the distinctions between playtime and reality; it is presented as incontrovertible, omnipotent, and very, very real. The article argued that learning to live with such a dramatic imposition of power by an infallible authority will make it easier for children to accept the increasingly invasive surveillance by the government as they grow up.
Like the flip of a switch, my mind immediately started racing, wondering if and how I had grown accustomed to surveillance in my own life. The glaringly obvious answer lay in the public school system, an institution that imposes its power structure on children for the first 18 years of their lives. Despite evidence indicating its effectiveness in deterring undesirable behavior, the new reality of extreme surveillance in schools prepares children for increasingly intrusive methods of surveillance later in life, and on a fundamental level, is a violation of individual liberties.
In the United States, the frightening increase in federal surveillance capabilities in recent years has been accompanied by a corresponding, if not more dramatic, increase in surveillance in schools. I felt uniquely unsettled to discover that it’s perfectly legal for educational entities to collect and file away every click I make while using school learning platforms. This collection of test scores, grades, demographics, and countless other bits of data form a profile that has followed me through all my years in the system.
I feel unsafe when reading about cases like that of a high school in eastern Pennsylvania, where school-issued computers recorded students in the presumed privacy of their own homes, and school administrators took disciplinary action based on what they witnessed. I feel violated when I log on to a school computer and see a message flash before my eyes that I “voluntarily consent” to having “all actions, e-mails, or other electronic information monitored, recorded, seized, and disclosed.” That is absolutely unconscionable. To function in the modern education system, students must use school technology. These policies effectively force every student to give up the right to their online privacy.
Recently, a police officer at my school reported quite nonchalantly that forcibly obtaining the passwords to student phones and accounts on the mere suspicion of child pornography happens “all the time.” When questioned how strong this suspicion had to be, a concrete answer was tactfully avoided. A highly publicized example of this kind of violation occurred in 2012 in Minnesota, when an officer forced a girl at taser-point to hand over her cell phone. She then watched as the officer and administrators proceeded to read through her Facebook messages on the suspicion of “sexting.”
Officers of the law do have a place in schools, but that place in no way includes access to student social media accounts and the unfettered, warrantless ability to play and replay any CCTV data that suits their fancy. Prison-like monitoring of schools has begun to manifest with metal detectors, biometrics, and tracking devices implanted in student IDs. The future of school surveillance looks dark indeed.
Constant surveillance in education institutions has a profound moral and sociological effect that has been predicted for centuries: the ingraining of institutional power into the public consciousness. In the 1700s, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham published a design for a model correctional facility. The building was a large hollow cylinder, with the interior walls coated in a honeycomb of individual cells. In the central space was a spire, designed so that observers in the spire could peer out at the cells without the inmates knowing. Bentham named this facility the panopticon.
Later, in the 1970s, social theorist Michel Foucault revived the concept, claiming that it represented the perfect imposition of power. The inmates had no way of knowing when they were under surveillance. Because the possibility existed at all times, they internalized the panopticon’s expression of power, and perfect self-discipline was the result. Foucault emphasized that perhaps the most crucial aspect of the panopticon was its ubiquitous subtlety. The spire teeters just at the edge of the prisoner’s consciousness, ever-present, always-watching, until eventually it becomes a part of him. His modified, “ideal” behavior eventually becomes as natural to him as breathing.
On some levels, how is this any different from the public school system, and in a larger sense, the American surveillance state as a whole? Foucault believed that the model would work just as well for a factory, a hospital, and yes, even a school. Panoptic surveillance’s strength lies in its insidiousness, and introducing it to children in schools trains them early in the concept of ever-present, all-seeing surveillance. When you think of children playing warily under the watchful eyes of the Elf on the Shelf, and students taught to accept this display of absolute power, the ease at which the adult population accepts surveillance by the NSA and federal government is no accident. Of course, there is no vast, secret conspiracy here, but clearly surveillance in schools prepares children for a lifetime of violations of privacy by the government.
Any valid discussion of surveillance in schools cannot exclude its benefits. There is a reason that surveillance has become increasingly invasive and prevalent: it’s effective. In some schools that implemented extensive CCTV surveillance programs within the past decade, disciplinary offenses declined by as much 95 percent. Additionally, cameras and digital trails provide invaluable evidence to solve vandalism and other crimes that plague schools. Proponents of surveillance argue that leaving schools’ hands tied in cyberspace would place them decades behind a new age of crime. However, how can any benefit of surveillance justify actions that so blatantly violate the Fourth Amendment?
Crime has evolved with the digital age, but so has every other aspect of modern life. For teens, the Internet is a natural extension of the self. Every social media presence, every use of a Google service, every search, every click combines to create a profile of each student so detailed that for schools to have access to it can only be viewed as “unreasonable search and seizure.” It is a search of the psyche; a seizure of the identity itself. Even Orwell could barely have imagined a world where public institutions had access to a complete construct of a citizen’s mind, individuality, and entire existence.
With the government increasingly intruding on private life starting in pre-K, students must learn to fight back. The girl from Minnesota who was forced at taser-point to hand over her Facebook account? Her case was picked up by the ACLU and settled on the grounds of the First and Fourth Amendments, with the school district promising greater privacy for its students. The school district that issued computers to collect data in students’ homes? It lost its case in federal court. The only unbeatable thing about surveillance is its popular perception; just like any oppressor, it can be fought. It is up to us, a new generation making history as the first entirely in the digital age, to take back the freedoms that are our birthright just as much as are iPhones and high-speed Internet. We must become as well versed in the Bill of Rights as we are in getting the maximum amount of re-tweets, and remember always that liberty is much like a Snapchat: it disappears more quickly than you think.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.