Well, here’s a little late-night horrorshow, soon (no doubt) to be a direct-to-video movie starring Tom Cruise and Aasif Mandvi…
Act I, a post at NYMag, “Alabama School District Hired an Ex-FBI Agent to Monitor Students on Social Media“:
… A monitoring program in an Alabama school district paid a former FBI agent $157,000 to monitor the social-media interactions of students, resulting in 14 expulsions last year.
The program targeted 600 of Huntsville’s 24,000 students over the past year through a program called SAFe, Students Against Fear. Teachers or students could anonymously tip Chris McRae, the ex-FBI agent, about alarming things, and McRae would then scour their social-media accounts for signs linking them to drugs, weapons, gangs, or sex. (What, exactly, would count as an expulsion-worthy transgression isn’t clear.)
To make privacy matters more alarming, 12 of the 14 students expelled owing to social-media monitoring were black. This is in a school district where suspensions of black students already exceed their percentage of the student body: Just 40 percent of the district’s schoolchildren are black, but they accounted for 78 percent of expulsions last year…
(Orwell himself couldn’t have come up with a more ironic title for this spy program than “Students Against Fear,” although I suspect the idiosyncratic capitalization would’ve killed him if he weren’t already dead.)
Act II, I clicked over to the source article, read the comments, and got referred back to a series of AL.com articles at the end of September, starting with “Huntsville schools say call from NSA led to monitoring students online“:
A secret program to monitor students’ online activities began quietly in Huntsville schools, following a phone call from the NSA, school officials say.
Huntsville schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski says the system began monitoring social media sites 18 months ago, after the National Security Agency tipped the school district to a student making violent threats on Facebook.
The NSA, a U.S. agency responsible for foreign intelligence, this week said it has no record of a call to Huntsville and does not make calls to school systems…
About a year and half ago, Wardynski said, the NSA called Huntsville and reported a high school student had threatened on Facebook to injure a teacher.
Al Lankford, the city’s longtime school security officer, told AL.com that he took the NSA phone call. He said security officers went to the high school and eventually searched the boy’s car.
“We found a very good size knife and the student was expelled,” said Wardynski, a former U.S. Army colonel appointed as superintendent in Huntsville in 2011…
“There was a foreign connection,” said Wardynski, explaining why the NSA would contact Huntsville schools. He said the student in Huntsville had made the online threats while chatting online with a group that included an individual in Yemen….
Act III, that student with the Yemeni in his chat group outed himself:
Auseel Yousefi says he did it. He sent the tweets that school officials say led to a warning from the NSA which led Huntsville to begin monitoring student Facebook pages.
But he says it was all a joke, a bad one — a stand-up routine that would cost him the first semester of his senior year at Lee High School.
On the day he got in trouble, Yousefi says, he was taken into a room full of administrators and shown emailed photos of a series of jokes on his Twitter feed. He says the administrators alternately referred to reports of threats forwarded by “the NSA” or an “NSA affiliate.”
“It meant absolutely nothing to me at the time,” he said of the National Security Agency, the U.S. government’s global spy network. Instead, Yousefi was focused on defending the humor in those tweets. Then school security searched his car. They found a jeweled dagger from a Renaissance fair in the glove box. Yousefi would be expelled for one semester.
Superintendent Casey Wardynski has said the NSA contacted the system because of the foreign connection. Yousefi, now a student at Birmingham-Southern, said he was born and raised in Alabama, but his parents were from Yemen…
… After an interview with AL.com, Yousefi texted to say he remembered the name GEOCOP, a cyber security software program.
There are identical news reports out of Texas and Phoenix last year, reports of GEOCOP representatives, despite having no contract, calling school systems to warn of online threats from students. But GEOCOP today also said it wasn’t them…
It was his last day of junior year at Lee High School. Yousefi said he woke up early and decided: “How funny would it be if I tweeted last day of school jokes?”
He announced a list of what he would do that day. He sent four or five tweets.
“In retrospect, it was a very dumb thing to do.”
The first was the most problematic. Yousefi said he wrote” “I’m going to chop (his biology teacher) in the throat.” To his mind, it was harmless. It was an inside joke, he said, as the female teacher had used similar language to get the class to be quiet. The students thought it was funny….
He said he blamed Wardynski for his expulsion at one point. But then learned he could have been expelled for his whole senior year. “I have a lot of respect for the guy,” said Yousefi, who speaks highly of just about every teacher and administrator.
“If I could undo this, I don’t think I would, purely for the reason that I did more growing in these six months than all of high school,” he said.
He said he used to be a class clown, and was somewhat more introverted when he returned to Lee. But he said teachers were supportive. He said the same biology teacher offered to make him her lab assistant. He is now studying cognitive science and economics at Birmingham-Southern. The dagger is in a chest in his room at home.
But he still wonders why his Twitter account was singled out…
So — we have a private for-profit corporation scouring social websites, looking for student “threats” it can use to scam pants-wetting school administrators for fat contracts; and a Yemeni-American high school kid getting suspending for six months for making dumb jokes on Twitter; leading to a “former FBI agent“ (McRae) getting $157,000 to snoop on all the high school kids in Huntsville; resulting in some dicey punishments that just so happen to mostly affect African-American students. And for once, it seems like the NSA may have had its name taken in vain!
It’d make a great farce, if it weren’t for the kids suffering, and also the scarce school funding poured down the security-theatre rathole…