Could your child’s public school be playing “big brother” to its students? For some students, their schools just may be spying on them – even in the comfort and privacy of their own homes.
In February, a Pennsylvania Court faced a case in which a public school is accused of spying on students via the webcams attached to school-issued laptops.
According to the initial complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Lower Merion School District used remotely activated webcams on school-issued laptops to spy on students’ home activities. As CNN reports, the lawsuit claims that Blake J. Robbins, a student at Harriton Senior High School, became aware of the spying in November 2009, when an assistant principal told Robbins that he had been caught via the webcam engaging in “improper behavior” in his home.
This video reports the story referred to above.
It is yet unknown what the boy was doing in his bedroom or whether the boy received disciplinary action from the school. Nevertheless, the case is receiving widespread national attention and prompting concerns from students and parents across the country.
The School District’s Response
Webcams Used Only for Locating Missing Laptops
The school district has issued a letter to parents admitting that there was spyware installed on the laptops that the schools issued to students, but maintaining that the feature “was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop.”
According to the Washington Post, Doug Young, a spokesperson for the Lower Merion School District, says that the district remotely activated 42 webcams for the purpose of finding missing student laptops over the past 14 months. The district had issued about 2,300 laptops to students in total, and Young reported that the district had recovered 28 of the missing laptops.
Parents Were Not Told about the Webcams
However, those concerned with privacy issues still find the case alarming because the school district did not make it clear to students and families that the laptops they were being issued contained software that could be used for spying or surveillance.
Doug Young, a spokesman for the Lower Merion School District, acknowledged to the Associated Press that the school district’s failure to explain the built-in security feature was a mistake, and he noted that such mistakes may be expected when schools launch innovative programs that combine technology with education. The Washington Post quotes Young as saying that “anytime you're talking about technology and education and kids, there's an important conversation to be had about privacy and balance.”
But Young added that the school district “can categorically state that we have always been committed to protecting the privacy of our students.”
The school district has de-activated the security feature since the lawsuit was filed.
This video discusses the various ways we can be spied on.
The Public’s Response
The case has brought to light potential conflicts between technology and privacy that are important to students and parents everywhere.
Invasion of Privacy and Violation of Federal Wire-Tapping Laws
Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who specializes in electronic privacy, told CNN that the school district’s actions were “foolish and dangerous” and may have broken federal wire-tapping laws. He said that the case might serve as a warning to other school districts.
Meanwhile, American Civil Liberties Union director Vic Walczak said that “the school district's clandestine electronic eavesdropping violates constitutional privacy rights, intrudes on parents' right to raise their children and may even be criminal under state and federal wiretapping laws.”
Cory Doctorow, a journalist and science fiction author who has addressed issues surrounding privacy and technology in novels such as Little Brother, writes on the website BoingBoing that “If true, these allegations are about as creepy as they come.”
How Much Surveillance is Necessary?
Although the general public reaction since the lawsuit was filed has been one of shock and outrage, some in the computer monitoring business are pointing out that surveillance of school-issued computers may be necessary to an extent.
Doug Taylor, director of educational marketing for Spectorsoft, which sells PC and Internet monitoring software, said to PC World that monitoring students’ Internet and computer activities is “vital” to ensure that students are not using machines in an “inappropriate manner” by downloading copyrighted material, engaging in cyberbullying, or downloading potential malware.
As the case makes its way to trial, this question regarding whether schools have the right to monitor the activities of students who use school-issued computers will likely be hotly debated.
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