Monday, March 1, 2010


I was waiting for the dust to settle on this case because it's literally so earth-shattering that I didn't want to find myself jumping the gun (as I've done numerous times before). If you haven't heard about the case of the student class-action lawsuit against the PA Lower Merion School District, one so big it's been given it's own "-gate" by the media, then here's the run down.

The Lower Merion School District has been accused of spying on it's student population through webcams mounted in the district's official laptops. They're one of the first public school districts to give out laptops to their student population, but apparently didn't tell parents or students that these devices were being used to not only log everything the student writes or sees when using it, but even more disturbingly, to actually monitor what the student is doing at home while using it.

If you listen to the school department heads, they've never used the remote monitoring for any other purpose than tracking down missing or stolen laptops, but the real firestorm of controversy over this comes from a student who apparently was facing disciplinary measures for engaging in inappropriate activity at home via a screenshot they were able to obtain from his laptop's webcam. Apparently they mistook some candy on his desk to be drugs, or thought he was dealing drugs, called him down for questioning with the screen shots in hand, and that's when they broke the news to him that they'd obtained their evidence through the school-issued laptop.

Outraged, he and his parents filed a class-action suit against the school district and a judge has ordered the school department to shut down all use of its remote monitoring devices. Now the FBI is even looking into the case to see if federal wiretap or computer intrusion laws were violated. The school district admits that it's laptops came with devices used for covert monitoring, but denies any wrong doing.

Isn't this unreal? Usually inflammatory comparisons are pointless in these kinds of cases, but this one I think has every right to be compared with George Orwell's 1984, particularly the use of the Telescreens that "both acted as transmitters and receivers" and hung so innocuously in every residence. One can't help but agree with this local blogger who writes:

But if this story is at all true … holy shit. Spying on kids, in their bedrooms? What if they, you know, decide to change clothing? It's one thing to track how students use school district property — if they're visiting hardcore porn sites or whatever — it's quite another to use a webcam to monitor and capture their daily activities, outside of school, in the supposed privacy of their own homes...

This person goes on to say, "I can't imagine a more asinine invasion of students' privacy." And neither can I. And certainly this writer has some interesting thoughts on the issue as well that ring true:

Schools are in an absolute panic about kids divulging too much online, worried about pedos and marketers and embarrassing photos that will haunt you when you run for office or apply for a job in 10 years. They tell kids to treat their personal details as though they were precious. [The only message they're sending kids is] your privacy is worthless and you shouldn't try to protect it.

My thoughts exactly. Regardless of how this case turns out in the end, the very idea that school districts thought they could get away with this strikes a pretty powerful chord at the heart of exactly how far off the deep end society is heading in the pursuit of keeping kids safe or out of trouble. They've begun to act like the very threat they're supposedly trying to shelter the kids from. When you think of people watching your child online, you think of creeps who don't have your child's best interests at heart--you don't typically think of the child's school as one of them.

But maybe you should, because this isn't the only school district that seemed to be perfectly fine with this entire setup. Just last month a PBS Frontline documentary "Digital Nation" aired featuring a school administrator from the Intermediate School 339 in the Bronx bragging about his own laptop spying program (includes the video):

"They don't even realize we are watching," "I always like to mess with them and take a picture," and "9 times out of 10, they duck out of the way." He says the students "use it like it's a mirror" and he watches. He says 6th and 7th graders have their cameras activated.

Now obviously this program seemed to be more about keeping students on task while inside of school--which I don't see much a problem with. While inside of school, using a school-issued laptop, the school has every right to monitor whether the kids are using them appropriately. What's disturbing here is that any mention of the students' privacy concerns are completely absent from the documentary. What happens when they take their laptops home? I am not the only one creeped out at the thought of some guy, a school administrator no less, leering at 6th graders over a laptop webcam mount. Once again, Cory over at Boing Boing gives a final, chilling word on the obvious double-standard at play here:

What kind of educator thinks that this is a good practice? Certainly no teacher's union I know would put up with principals and administrators putting this kind of surveillance into their lives.

I don't know for sure, but I have a suspicion that being a kid today would absolutely suck.

Remotely tapping into a computer to use its hardware to take videos, pictures or record audio is in fact wiretapping -- even if the computer is government owned. I am sure that many parents would not consent to the use of such laptops at home if they were made aware of the ability to carry out such monitoring. I certainly would not consent to usage of a laptop by my own child in my own home under those conditions if I had a kid--which is unfortunate, because a laptop can be a vital resource for many students.

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