California School District Enacts Social Media Surveillance To Counter Cyber Bullying


In response to a series of cyber bullying related teen suicides that took place in Los Angeles last year, the Southern California school district has decided to employ a social media monitoring service enabling the school to take a proactive role in curtailing cyber bullying with the hopes of saving teen lives and ensuring teen safety. For the pilot, the Glendale Unified School District in California hired social media surveillance service, Geo Listening, to monitor the public postings of approximately 14, 000 middle school and high school students.  The school district is paying Geo Listening $40,500 for the company’s surveillance services.

Geo Listening is a social media monitoring service that is currently advertising to schools and campuses across the nation the company’s information technology services that will aid school’s in monitoring student’s public social media postings in order to promote student safety.  As part of the company’s corporate initiative, Geo Listening will collect posting data from the following sites: Twitter; Facebook, Instagram, Picasa, Vine, Flickr,, YouTube, and Google+.

In particular, the service will provide schools enlisting the company’s services with a daily report that will “take[] into account [the]  frequency and severity of a student’s posts in alignment with the following categories: bullying, cyber bullying, despair, hate, harm, crime, vandalism, substance abuse, truancy.” The daily reports that are provided to school administrators  will include a “screen capture of the flagged posts” accompanied by other details such as whether the posts are made on or off campus, the time and date the posts were made, the user name of the post, and possibly, why the post attracted the attention of Geo Listening analysts.

The Glendale District’s implementation of Geo Listening’s services has sparked debate with respect to the school’s invasion of student privacy rights outside of the schoolhouse gates. Although the service does not use a list of names to track students, the computer software utilizes a “deductive reasoning” method that links public accounts to students. Aware of the debate, Geo Listening has been adamant that their service does not infringe on privacy rights because it only monitors what is publicly posted. The company has also stated that the surveillance policies are in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, as Geo Listening’s database will limit its collection to public information for children over the age of 13 and will thereby eliminate any records not in compliance with this rule.

Nevertheless, the California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern that the school is on the cusp of invading student privacy because the service’s broad “sweeping” method goes beyond “what is necessary to ensure student safety.”  Students have expressed similar concerns that although the school’s goal to promote student safety is admirable, Geo Listening’s services are overly intrusive on student lives outside of school.

As of yet, no one in the Southern School District has been disciplined in response to any of the posts collected under the pilot program. By the end of 2013, the company expects to monitor approximately 3,000 schools worldwide.

A special thanks to Melissa Cefalu, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for help with this post.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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