Posted in personal
February 20, 2010

Big Brother is Everywhere

When I first read this story two days ago, I’d wanted to comment. I wanted to discuss it here, but knew that I needed some time to distance myself and be able to speak about it without simply fuming about how angry I was (the white hot anger with the flames shooting from the side of my head).

The Robbins family are suing the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania after their son’s school remotely accessed the webcam in his district-issued laptop. Let me explain that- his school district, like many, have a laptop for students program- where laptops are issued to the students and parents typically sign a liability waver. With these laptops, students can use specific software to complete assignments and so on.

The school activated the webcam, and based on what they saw the student doing at home, brought him in to discuss his inappropriate behavior.

According to the school district (as you can read in this letter that Gizmodo posted from the superintendent), software was installed by the schools to be able to track down missing or stolen laptops. When activated (which would require paperwork and authorization), the software would remotely activate the webcam and take a picture so that they could identify who had taken the laptop- or where it might be.

Which is all well and good. Except, that clearly, the laptop wasn’t missing. Which means that someone had activated the software and was actively watching. Even if it had been a mistaken case- the school was entirely out of bounds to even talk to the student about what he was doing at home. Not only that, they never mention what happens to the images they take. Do they keep them, are they deleted? Considering that most students would be using the laptops in their rooms, this increases the opportunity that they could be caught undressed.

In an age where we are pushing for more technology in schools, this raises many questions for parents. Just what is the school allowed to do? If your school has a laptop program like this, look at the agreement they make you sign. If you don’t see anything that mentions a security program that is installed, tape over the webcam, mute the microphone and disable remote access. If it does mention a security program that’s installed, have your children tell you immediately if they see the webcam’s power indicator light turn on. While it will flicker at boot-up, if it comes on at any other time, some program on their laptop is accessing it.

So what is the school supposed to do? The simplest thing is to have keylogging software so that the school can be monitored if the child is using the laptop to access inappropriate material (after all, it’s meant to be for schoolwork), and to have a locater chip installed in case of theft or loss. That way, they can still manage the usage, without possibly taking pictures of half naked children. And more importantly, they need to make all this abundantly clear in their agreements that parents and students have to sign.

We’re reaching that tipping point, where public lives and private lives are combining- make sure your children understand the technology they’re using, especially how readily things like Twitter and Facebook can be publicly accessed. And how easy it is for others to get the information that we all thought of as private- text messages, calls. What was once thought of as conspiracy theory is becoming fact- simply because everything passes through computer servers and is saved, somewhere. (Honestly, data’s saved on servers for much longer than you think- it’s like the data version of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Only instead of a warehouse filled with boxes as far as they eye can see, it’s servers all over the world that have your data saved somewhere)

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