Increasingly ubiquitous surveillance is enabled not just by its invisibility but by the common refrain that people who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. I doubt that sentiment will prevail in suburban Pennsylvania, where, according to a complaint recently filed in federal district court, high school officials spied on students and their families, in their homes, by remotely activating Webcams on laptops issued to over 2,000 students last year. (Even seasoned civil libertarians were taken aback: "every time you think you've heard everything ..." my friend Harvey Silverglate remarked.)
The complaint in this case, filed by the parents of student Blake Robbins, alleges that the Robbins family learned they were under surveillance when a Harriton High School administrator accused Blake of having "engaged of improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the Webcam embedded in (Blake's) personal laptop issued by the school district." According to the complaint, the administrator acknowledged to Blake's father that the "School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam ...at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the Webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of (the user)."
The school district has not exactly denied these charges: A statement on its Web site admits that the laptops were equipped with "security features" capable of taking "still images of the operator and the operator's screen." These features were "only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop." Naturally school officials "regret any concern or inconvenience among our students and families" caused by the previously secret surveillance; it is disabling the "security tracking program" and reviewing its policies. Good to know.
This seems like a case the school district should be anxious to settle, and it would be comforting to regard it as anomalous. But if most high school administrators are not secretly photographing students and their families at home, many are monitoring and punishing the online, off campus speech of students. (I've discussed this trend here; the Student Press Law Center tracks student rights cases generally.) Sometimes school administrators are checked by the courts (or perhaps by the threat of lawsuits). A federal magistrate in Florida recently ruled in favor of a former high school student who'd been suspended for criticizing a teacher on her Facebook page; the court declined to dismiss her lawsuit against the school and observed that her remarks about the teacher were protected speech. But the Supreme Court has been unsympathetic to student speech rights, rejecting a challenge by a student who was disciplined for carrying a nonsensical "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" sign at an off-campus event, and in another widely noted case, Doninger v Neihoff, a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, (including Sonia Sotomayor) rejected a First Amendment challenge by a student who was punished for criticizing school administrators on her blog.
I'm not comparing the covert installation of cameras in a student's home to the monitoring of her public, online (or off line) speech, exactly. But Harriton's High School's alleged use of Webcams is just a few steps along a continuum of expanding official intrusions into the off campus lives, and minds, of students. What is perhaps most striking about the conduct alleged in the Harriton school case is the apparent obliviousness of school officials to the wrongfulness, much less apparent illegality, of their conduct. (The FBI has reportedly opened a criminal investigation into the alleged spying.) According to the complaint in this case, the assistant principal volunteered as evidence against Blake Robbins a photograph of him taken by the secret, remotely activated Webcam. I'm tempted to ask "What were they thinking," but the better question is "Why were they thinking it?"
UPDATE: Hysteria over drug use may have contributed to the allegedly illegal surveillance of students at Harriton High. Courthousenews.com reports: "A federal judge late Monday ordered a suburban school district not to activate 'any and all Web cams embedded in laptop computers issued to students.' The district had accused a sophomore of selling drugs because a snapshot taken remotely from the school-issued laptop showed him holding what looked like two pills. They were in fact Mike & Ikes, one of his favorite candies, said the boy's mother."