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What would you do if your local high school bought every student a brand new Apple MacBook? Would you think you have the best school district in the world? Or would you be concerned about your privacy?
I think it’s probably safe to say, privacy would be our last thought. After all, we trust the school with the education of our children. That was the mistake of parents of high school students in a wealthy school district in Pennsylvania where 2,300 Apple laptops were distributed. The laptops came equipped with webcams and software (also known as spyware) that enabled school officials to turn on the webcam by remote and take snap shots of the computers’ operators (often children in their own bedrooms), which apparently the school often did.
It all came to light when the vice principal of the high school called a 15-year-old boy named Blake Robbins into her office. There, she reprimanded him for his improper behavior in his home. It seems that young Mr. Robbins was popping Mike and Ikes like candy–which they are. However, this spying vice principal thought he was taking drugs.
Blake’s parents were outraged (and rightly so), and filed a civil rights lawsuit against the school, and also several administrators. Their lawsuit claims:
[T]he laptops were routinely used by students and family members at home, it is believed that many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including in various stages of dress or undress.
We cannot pretend that we don’t live in an era where teachers’ sexual misconduct is an issue. No, that would be plain ignorant. The headlines of such misconduct have become such common place, that it’s really no longer news. What is news is that a school would be so brazen to trample the privacy of its students by placing them under surveillance, without permission from anyone, and for no apparent reason.
The official excuse from the school as to why the technology was installed in the first place is frankly lame. It claims the spyware was installed to locate stolen or lost laptops. When you consider that a simple piece of electrical tape would provide sufficient cover for a thief, and GPS could pinpoint the location of a lost item, it really doesn’t hold water. Not to mention the fact that the boy who got busted for eating candy in his bedroom was not working on a lost or stolen computer. So, why were they spying?
For over a year, students reported that the tiny green LED light, which indicates the webcam is on, would turn on indiscriminately. When this issue was brought to the school administrators, they blew them off, saying it was a software glitch. Obviously, someone knew full well what was going on– that these webcams were being remotely activated and operated, putting their students under surveillance. The school lied about it.
The FBI has opened an investigation to see if any federal wiretap or computer- intrusion laws were violated, and a lawyer for a possible class action lawsuit has asked a judge preserve all the data on the laptops as evidence.
Just a few years ago, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled that a parent’s right to direct the education of their child was greatly diminished once the initial decision of which school the child would attend was made. Once a child passes through the threshold of the school, the school assumes parens patriae or country as parent. Over the years, parents have let their authority slip away to the schools, while the local schools have given way to the states, and the states to the federal government. This should outrage every parent and grandparent.
These school administrators have demonstrated one of two things. Either, there is a very creepy and sinister motive behind the eye of the webcam peeking into students’ bedrooms, or they truly believe they own the children to the degree that their reach of authority stretches into home and private life. Neither is acceptable, and both should be criminally punished.