Students under near-constant surveillance at schools linked to the Exclusive Brethren, insiders claim

Students at a network of private schools set up by the Exclusive Brethren sect are under almost constant surveillance, even outside school hours, according to former staff, students and parents.

They say the laptops provided by schools are closely monitored by a group of church members.

Parents of former students told Guardian Australia that they were also being monitored by these so-called ‘device monitors’ to ensure they were checking their children’s internet use, and if they weren’t, they could report it to the church.

All students, staff and parents are informed that their school devices are being monitored. The OneSchool Global (OSG) network says that all monitoring is carried out strictly in accordance with the Privacy Act and all other Australian laws.

OSG says that “no church is involved in the surveillance procedures”, but this is disputed by former staff and students. Official school documents also repeatedly refer to the involvement of “pastoral support” from the local community.

The Brethren, now known as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, were once accused by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of being an “extremist cult.” Former members say the church has a strict doctrine of separation from “worldly” people, meaning its members are not allowed to socialize with non-members and access to technology and the Internet is tightly controlled.

The Brothers refute these claims by saying that it is a “mainstream Christian church.” “The fact is that we live and work with people from within our church, outside our church and from all walks of life,” a church spokesman said.

Church leader Bruce Hales has dismissed Rudd’s allegations as “not factual”. “They were uninformed and it appears to us that they deliberately intended to portray the Brethren in an unfair light for political purposes,” he said.

Guardian Australia has spoken to several former staff, students and parents who allege that students attending OSG schools are monitored through a combination of CCTV cameras installed across all campuses and through the monitoring of laptops by other members of the Brethren community.

Devices and internet usage reviewed

OSG has 31 campuses in Australia and 2,500 enrolled students. Globally, it operates 120 campuses in 20 countries from its headquarters in Sydney.

The school network was set up by the Brothers to provide an education for their children outside the regular school system. The church says it does not run the schools and that non-Brother families can enroll their children if they adhere to its ethos.

The school is supported by volunteers from the church community.

The computers and telephones used by members of the Brethren Church come from the Brethren’s central business group, Universal Business Team (UBT).

The computers used by students in the Brethren schools are installed with UBT software called Streamline3, which allows for remote monitoring of internet and email usage, and includes periodic screen recordings. Personal devices are generally not allowed.

So-called “student device monitors” are deployed on a volunteer basis in each Brethren community linked to each school campus, and at least one of these monitors is expected to be a Brethren “elder” — a father over 50 whose children have left school. OSG said all of these volunteers receive extensive training and are required to have Working with Children checks.

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These supervisors, who are charged with reviewing and implementing IT policies, must report to the school each week on each student’s Internet activity and any inappropriate search terms or content.

They are expected to report their findings regularly to local church leadership.

Supervisors are also expected to ensure that parents have access to their child’s email account by installing it on their own devices.

Supervisors must report to the school weekly if parents are not using the Streamline3 portal to monitor their child’s internet usage.

Parents report that they receive a weekly summary of their child’s internet usage and are then required to log into the portal to access all of their child’s computer activity, including their email activity and any files they have opened or created each week.

They expect you to sue your child if he or she does something the church doesn’t like.

Households not logged into the portal can also be referred to the local community for pastoral action.

A parent who has since left the Brotherhood and wished to remain anonymous said he or she was reprimanded for failing to report his or her child’s Internet use.

“You can’t protect your child as a parent without being targeted as a member of the church. They expect you to accuse your child if they do something the church doesn’t like.”

According to a publicly available privacy notice for ‘younger students’ at OSG schools in the UK, the school will ‘monitor your child’s use of email, internet and mobile electronic devices’.

“In certain circumstances, we will review the content of your child’s communications (e.g. emails and text messages). This is to check that your child is not misbehaving or putting themselves at risk when using this technology.

“The monitoring we do is done using computer software that automatically tells us if something is wrong. The software collects screenshots, search terms and websites visited.”

An “ICT Abuse – Behavior Management Policy” developed by the OSG “global IT team” classifies IT breaches according to four different levels, with a serious breach involving the sharing of non-school related music, videos or games.

‘Blacklist’ sites

Facebook is ‘blacklisted’ and repeated access to these sites is also considered a ‘serious’ breach that is reported to campus administrators so they can take action.

Inappropriate personal relationship communication also falls into this category.

In addition, at each school, the schools use volunteer community members for an email monitoring team, which monitors student email correspondence.

Families are told that parents must be “vigilant” in supervising their children, and it is seen as “faithful” to report anything to church authorities as they try to protect their children from the outside world.

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Parents can receive daily or weekly screenshots of every website their child visits. They can also learn how to permanently delete inappropriate files, such as music that is not related to schoolwork. They can also search for terms that concern them.

Guardian Australia understands that a guide to device monitoring describes how to scan a child’s internet activity for “concerns”. As an example, a search for the word “gay” is suggested.

OSG told the Guardian that its technology “uses categorisation and content filtering, based on the same standard lists of search terms and classifications used by other schools to identify online activity that is inappropriate for a school environment”.

“This technology doesn’t have any additional filtering that would block searches around sexual orientation. It would likely have additional filtering that would apply to searches around self-harm, eating disorders, and the like.”

Use of CCTV cameras

Additionally, cameras have been installed in all indoor and outdoor areas of the OneSchool Global campuses, including classrooms, storage areas and the entrance to the restrooms.

All outdoor areas are also monitored by CCTV, including parking lots, areas where children queue for buses and gymnasiums. Areas not monitored by CCTV are considered off-limits to students.

The staff areas are also monitored with CCTV.

A ‘staff privacy notice’ issued to school staff in the UK and seen by Guardian Australia states that schools regularly monitor and consult the IT system used by staff using Streamline3.

“The school may also monitor staff use of the school telephone system and voicemail messages. Staff should be aware that the school may monitor the content of a communication (such as the content of an email),” the memo said.

“Monitoring can be performed on an arbitrary basis and can be performed in response to a specific incident or concern.”

It says the Streamline3 software “automatically monitors the school’s IT system (for example, it would issue an alert if a staff member visited a blocked website or sent an email containing an inappropriate word or phrase”.

“If anything concerning comes to light as a result of such monitoring, this information may be shared with the HR team and may result in disciplinary action.”

Exclusive Brethren schools have operated under various names since 1994, but in 2019 were rebranded worldwide as OneSchool Global. At a 2009 fellowship meeting in Argentina, Hales spoke about his “philosophy” for the schools.

“My philosophy about education is that I want to be in control, and I want to know that those teachers know that we are in control. And control is crucial. And if they don’t respect you, I wouldn’t have them anywhere near that place… They have to respect our way of life… the way we raise our families… our ethos… And that’s how you keep control in school.”

‘Normal practice,’ says school

A spokesperson for OneSchool Global said it was “normal practice” for the school to have “software, policies and procedures in place to prevent malicious content, malware and the like” on school-issued computers.

“Schools at the 31 OSG schools in Australia adhere strictly to the Privacy Act and all other Australian laws. This includes the use of CCTV, which is implemented in the same way as in other schools,” the spokesperson said.

They said the school had a “multi-layered approach” to keeping children safe while using school-issued devices, and said Streamline3 was installed along with Safe Search Mode and other out-of-the-box technology.

“Streamline3 is installed on every OSG device, which is essentially a firewall that protects against malware and viruses, in addition to being an internet filter. It has different profiles and applications for students compared to non-students,” the spokesperson said.

“The non-student version is not monitored and is only used for malware filtering and prevention.”

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