Online activity tracked on public school-issued laptops

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cayman Islands government and private sector partners obtained thousands of laptops to provide to public school students.

Software installed on the laptops tracks online activity and attempts to restrict explicit content in search results on those school-issued devices, whether they are on campus or connected to the internet elsewhere.

However, it does not appear the Cayman government uses more-invasive ‘surveillance software’ that, for example, uses AI or humans to monitor documents or real-time messages in order to identify possible indications of negative behaviours such as suicidal ideation, drug use or eating disorders.

A raft of surveillance software programmes have exploded into use in the US as schools have shifted to virtual learning and accordingly deployed more devices to students.

Examples of programmes include Bark, Gaggle, Gnosis IQ, GoGuardian, Lightspeed and Securly.

Those programmes have raised concerns about student privacy and the possible disproportionate impact on lower-income students who are more likely to rely on school-issued devices, and therefore to have all of their online activity monitored by schools.

In response to an open records request from the Cayman Current, the Ministry of Education stated that it uses Cisco Umbrella to monitor and manage internet use on school laptops.

“However, we do not employ any of the software platforms (or alternatives) that are being referred to that holistically manage device content/use,” according to the Ministry’s response. “A content/application filtering product is deployed to the student device to manage access to the internet via web browsers or other applications”

Umbrella “tracks all internet activity including web browsing and attempts for applications to access the internet. It also enables browser safe mode which restricts explicit content in the search results”.

The overall cost of the government’s software license is about $30,000 for a two-year subscription and is determined according to the number of devices used by educators, not students.

“This product was deployed prior to remote learning and was not purchased specifically for this use case as student laptops did not leave the campus previously. A component of this product allowed for agents to be deployed to laptops to enable the same level of protection while away from campus, which is what was done,” according to the Ministry’s response.

The log of internet activity can be accessed only by Ministry of Education ICT Unit Administrators, and reports are shared with school leaders “as necessary”.

As part of its response, the Ministry referred to its ‘Student Laptop Loan Agreement’ that parents must sign before students receive their devices. The agreement states that “The school may monitor your use of IT systems and online behavior to maintain safety and also compliance with this policy.”

The Ministry states that it only shares data with the product vendor “as necessary as it relates to the provision of the service”.

The Current initially submitted the open records request under the Freedom of Information Law on 18 Oct., seeking information on what activity or data the government tracks on student laptops, what tracking software it uses, the cost of the software and who has access to that data.

The Ministry’s response was delayed due to technical reasons but was received in mid-November. The Current requested an ‘internal review’ of the response, which had not named Cisco Umbrella as the monitoring software.

The Ministry ultimately determined that public interest in disclosing the name of the software outweighed potential concerns over cybersecurity. The internal review response also includes a redacted version of Cisco’s ‘Privacy Data Sheet’, which describes how (where and by whom) personal data is processed.

The same Privacy Data Sheet, with no redactions, is published online by Cisco in a publicly accessible manner.

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