July 21, 2022

Warren, Markey Raise Concerns that Student Surveillance Platforms May Be Used to Criminalize or Punish Students Searching for Reproductive Health Information

After the Supreme Court’s Decision to Repeal Roe v. Wade, Student Activity Monitoring Software May Place Students at Increased Risk of Criminalization 

Text of Letters (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) sent letters to Bark Technologies, Gaggle.net, GoGuardian, and Securly Inc., raising concerns that the software these companies use to monitor students’ online activity could be used to criminalize or punish students who are seeking information about abortion services and reproductive health care. In their letters, the senators ask whether the companies’ software flags students’ online searches for terms related to reproductive health and how they are ensuring that their software is not used to criminalize or punish students. 

“While the stated intent of your products is to protect student safety, an investigation that we released in March 2022 revealed significant privacy and equity concerns associated with your software,” wrote the senators. “A recent report by privacy experts… found that digital surveillance data can be weaponized ‘to target pregnant people and use their health data against them in a court of law,’ and internet search engines were identified as ‘particularly potent tool(s)’ as ‘police can not only obtain search histories from a pregnant person’s device, but can also obtain records directly from search engines.’” 

Despite assurances from these companies that their products are not intended to be used for disciplinary or punitive purposes, the senators note that their report found that student activity monitoring software often is used to punish students: A survey of teachers found that almost half work in schools that have used the software to identify violations of discipline policies. Additionally, many companies immediately flag certain activities and content for law enforcement. 

“It would be deeply disturbing if your software flags words or activity that suggest students are searching for contraception, abortion, or other related services, and if school administrators, parents, and even law enforcement were potentially informed of this activity,” continued the senators. 

With abortion and reproductive rights under attack, the senators are asking the companies to answer a set of questions about their policies for handling students’ sensitive reproductive health data or searches, their software’s flagging of certain search terms, and their policies for sharing student search data with parents, schools, and law enforcement by August 3, 2022. 

Since the extremist Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and unleashed a nationwide attack on abortion and reproductive rights, Senator Warren has called on the government to use every tool to protect reproductive freedom and protect Americans’ sensitive data: 

  • On July 14, 2022, Senators Warren, Cory Booker (D-N.J), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), and over a dozen Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, urging them to immediately declare national and public health emergencies over Americans’ access to reproductive care
  • On July 7, 2022, Senators Warren and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) sent letters to Facebook and Instagram, calling on them to address their reported censorship of posts related to abortion services, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last month.
  • On July 7, 2022, Senator Warren announced two key data brokers’ commitments to permanently stop selling the location data of people seeking abortion services.
  • On June 23, 2022, Senators Warren and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) introduced the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation Act, legislation that would crack down on false advertising that crisis pregnancy centers employ to dissuade patients from getting the reproductive care they need, including abortion care. 
  • On June 22, 2022, following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Senators Warren and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) wrote an op-ed in the New York Times laying out the next steps in the fight to protect the right to an abortion, including calling for the declaration of a public health emergency.
  • On June 15, 2022, Senator Warren introduced the Health and Location Data Protection Act, legislation that bans data brokers from selling some of the most sensitive data available about everyday Americans: their health and location data. 
  • On June 7, 2022, Senators Warren and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) led 23 of their Senate colleagues in a letter to President Biden urging him to immediately issue an executive order directing the federal government to develop a national plan to defend Americans’ fundamental reproductive rights, including their right to an abortion.
  • On May 17, 2022, Senator Warren led thirteen of her Senate colleagues in letters to two data brokers demanding answers regarding their collection and sale of the cellphone-based location data of people who visit abortion clinics such as Planned Parenthood. 
  • On May 10, 2022, Senator Warren delivered a speech on the floor of the United States Senate on the need to protect the constitutional right to an abortion, pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, and fight back against Republican extremism. 
  • On May 9, 2022, Senator Warren wrote an op-ed in Marie Claire about the need to enshrine the right to an abortion in federal law. 
  • On May 3, 2022, when the draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked, Senator Warren spoke on the steps of the Supreme Court twice to activists, protestors, and the nation about the need to protect abortion rights. 
  • On March 30, 2022, Senators Warren and Markey released the findings of their investigation, showing that student surveillance platforms may be used for disciplinary purposes and confirmed the need for federal action to protect students’ civil rights, safety, and privacy.
  • On October 4, 2021, Senators Warren, Markey, and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent letters to four student activity monitoring companies, raising concerns about discriminatory bias in their software and asking for answers about their monitoring practices.