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The Trevor Project cuts ties with student surveillance software after online backlash

The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides crisis support to LGBTQ-plus youth, will cut ties with student-focused monitoring software company Gaggle after the partnership sparked backlash from activists.

The organization began listing Gaggle as a “corporate partner” on its website in May, according to a report from The 74, and took what it’s since confirmed to be a $25,000 donation. Gaggle still has The Trevor Project listed as a resource for LGBTQ students in multiple areas of its website.

Gaggle makes and markets software products purporting to review students’ online behavior in school-issued accounts and, using machine learning technology, flag “concerning content” for their districts. Items that its products can monitor, per Gaggle’s website, include everything from email subject lines and attachments to items shared through Google Drive and OneDrive, as well as messages and discussion posts in Canvas.

Previous reporting has raised concerns about the keywords that Gaggle can flag. The software has been accused of labeling words related to sexual orientation, including “gay” and “lesbian,” as harmful content and outing LGBTQ students

Gaggle did not respond to a request for comment by press time but told The 74 that it saw the partnership “as a learning opportunity.”

“We hope to work alongside schools and institutions to ensure they are appropriately supporting LGBTQ youth and their mental health”

As The 74’s report made the rounds online, backlash was swift. A barrage of Twitter users denounced the partnership, with some announcing that they’d canceled their recurring donations.

Shortly after the report published on Friday, Fight for the Future director Evan Greer called on the organization to “return the donation, remove Gaggle from their website, and apologize”.

“In states like Texas, law enforcement could easily direct a school district to use Gaggle to monitor student communications for LGBTQ+ or trans related content and then use that to investigate and prosecute families who are just trying to love their kids,” Greer tweeted in a widely shared thread condemning the partnership. “Do better, @TrevorProject.”

Just hours after the backlash began, The Trevor Project announced in a tweet that it would end its “engagement” with Gaggle and return its $25,000 donation.

“Our philosophy is that having a seat at the table enables us to positively influence how companies engage with LGBTQ young people, and we initially agreed to work with Gaggle because we saw an opportunity to have a meaningful impact to better protect LGBTQ students,” the organization tweeted on September 30th. “We hear and understand the concerns, and we hope to work alongside schools and institutions to ensure they are appropriately supporting LGBTQ youth and their mental health.”

Reached for comment, The Trevor Project spokesperson Jackson Budinger referred The Verge to the organization’s tweet. Budinger also clarified that The Trevor Project did not utilize Gaggle’s software.

Gaggle and its competitors have drawn ire from privacy advocates quite a few times in recent months. A similar monitoring service, Social Sentinel, came under scrutiny in the wake of the Uvalde mass shooting earlier this year, when The Dallas Morning News reported that it was contracted with the district.

Gaggle was also among four companies that Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey addressed in an open letter this summer over concerns that their data could punish students searching for abortion access. “As abortion bans and restrictions sweep across the country, we are concerned that your products may be used to criminalize or punish students seeking information related to abortion services,” the senators wrote.



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