Cyberbullying is simply awful, and its consequences can be utterly horrific. Canadians have known this all too well since 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons' suicide in 2013, after photos of her alleged rape circulated online.
It's only human to want to put a stop to it. But is it worth spying on kids?
To wit, the Canadian government is looking for a person or organization to "conduct an evaluation of an innovative cyberbullying prevention or intervention initiative" in a "sample of school-aged children and youth," according to a tender notice published by Public Safety Canada last week.
Although nothing has been finalized, the government will consider letting the organization spy on kids' digital communications to do it, Barry McKenna, the Public Safety procurement consultant in charge of the tender, told me.
"The tender doesn't preclude or necessarily require digital monitoring," said McKenna. "But there are certainly products on the market that do that, and I would guess that that kind of intervention would be one of interest."
The school board overseeing the school used in the study would have to sign off on digital surveillance of kids, McKenna said, and so would Public Safety. McKenna would not disclose whether any person or organization has responded to the tender yet. The government has budgeted $60,000 for the program, the notice states.
"Cyberbullying isn't a technological problem"
"Any use by government of technology to scan the internet and read somebody's communications obviously raises privacy issues," said David Fraser, a Canadian privacy lawyer consulting on a new cyberbullying law for Nova Scotia. "Fewer privacy issues if it's following an intervention and it's targeted," he continued, "way more if they're trying to single out kids in Canada and assess what they're saying."
"What we've seen come out of Public Safety and most law enforcement agencies is a pretty un-nuanced, heavy-handed, over the top model," Fraser added. Nova Scotia's previous cyberbullying law, passed in the wake of Parsons' suicide, was ruled unconstitutional and struck down for being too broad and infringing on people's civil rights.
If the Public Safety study ends up taking a more blanket approach to monitoring kids instead of targeting surveillance after an incident, it could also risk undermining communication between kids and their teachers or parents, according to US Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Sameer Hinduja.
"Installing tracking apps undermines any sort of open-minded communication [that] youth-serving adults might have with these kids, because you're tracking them surreptitiously," said Hinduja. "Kids, as they get older, want more privacy and freedom. It's natural—you want it, and I want it."
This isn't the first time somebody has considered surveillance as a solution to the complex social issue of kids being absolutely horrific to each other, and it likely won't be the last. In 2013, The LA Times noted that the Glendale Unified School District in Southern California reportedly paid a firm $40,000 to monitor kids' social media accounts to combat bullying. The move raised the ire of privacy advocates in the US then, too.
The point, according to Hinduja, is that bullying isn't a uniquely digital problem. You don't solve bullying forever by putting a teacher in every hallway, and you don't fix crime by putting a cop on every corner.
"Cyberbullying isn't a technological problem," said Hinduja. "You can't blame the apps, the smartphones, or the internet. Instead, cyberbullying is rooted in other issues that everyone has been dealing with since the beginning of time: adolescent development, kids learning to manage their problems, and dealing with stress."