Rockenbach says these sociograms are crucial tools to detect social isolation and might even help identify children who are vulnerable to bullying. He points to testimonial reports from schools as an indicator that the platform helps improve well-being. But, he adds, “we haven’t conducted a full-on research project that might compare, for example, a school that uses Bloomsights versus a school that doesn’t. That’s something that we’re looking to do.”
Indeed, some teachers wonder how useful—or even ethical—the app is. “It’s some very intimate things that are asked, and they [the children] don’t necessarily know who is going to see it,” says Naya Marie Nord, a teacher at a suburban Copenhagen school that uses Bloomsights. “Of course, I as a teacher should have insight into how my students are feeling. But that’s something that I prefer to have conveyed in the confidentiality between me and the student, rather than it being told to a computer.” Nord is concerned about how many teachers who don’t work directly with the children still have access to their data. She believes the app straddles ethical boundaries given how much it impinges on students’ private lives.
“They have no chance of understanding what is going on. It’s not like we give them a long presentation explaining how it’s used and who has access [to the data],” North says. “And if we did, we would get no honest answers. If they actually understood the amount of data I can see about them and how many others can see it as well, I believe they would answer differently.”
According to the data policies of Klassetrivsel, one of the platforms that collect non-anonymized data, consent is not required from either parents or children before the app is used in the classroom. The company claims that since the app is an integrated tool used for “well-being purposes” at a public institution, it falls under a Danish legal clause that exempts public authorities from requirements about obtaining consent for data collection. And since the platforms aren’t classified as “information society services” like Facebook or Google, there is no parental consent required under the General Data Protection Regulation, the European Union’s sweeping data privacy law.
Legal precedents seem to back up Klassetrivsel’s claims about how the data law applies to its work. In 2019, a parent submitted a lament to the Danish Data Protection Agency, claiming that a data-driven well-being platform at her child’s school was engaging in forced monitoring of the child. The parent further argued that “measuring and monitoring well-being is not the same as improving well-being.” The agency ruled in favor of the school’s municipality: the app was deemed a tool for maintaining tasks of “crucial social interest” that fall under the responsibility of schools.
“Usually, the legal authority that these third-party apps operate under is that they are offering a service on behalf of the public authorities,” says Allan Frank, an IT lawyer at the agency. But they must still store data correctly and not collect more than is necessary. They must also operate under the aegis of governmental authorization, he says: “If there is a random teacher or a school that has been convinced to suddenly set it up without the supervision of the municipality or the Ministry of Education, then that would be a trouble.”
In Denmark, parents can opt out if they don’t want data collected on their children through these apps. According to Bloomsights, this is also the case in the US: although practices vary, Rockenbach says that parents typically sign a paper once a year that lists all the different services the school uses.
But because the apps are used in an educational context and are framed as altruistic, both parents and policymakers tend to have their guard down. “There are a lot of other apps where I limit my son’s use, but I’m not concerned about apps used in the school the same way I am about TikTok and YouTube, for example,” says Janni Hindborg Christiansen, mother of one of the children in the fifth-grade classroom that uses Woof. “At least Woof is used in a controlled environment and has a good purpose. I trust it more than so many other apps that I’d be more critical toward.”