Why Are Schools Spying on Students?

Smile! You're on your laptop camera

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Teacher, leave them kids alone! According to a lawsuit filed by a Pennsylvania family, a Philadelphia-area school district is spying on students and families using laptop computers. The lawsuit claims the school remotely activated the webcams on school-issued computers to observe children. The issue arose when a student was allegedly punished for a picture he took on his computer while at home. Lindy Matsko, the assistant principal, later confirmed that the school did have the capability to observe students from afar. The story caused an uproar by privacy advocates across the blogosphere. Still, some say the district might not be culpable.

  • What If This Got Into the Wrong Hands? wonders Mike Masnick at Techdirt: "It's rather stunning that anyone thought this was a good idea. Secretly spying on children in their homes when they have a very real expectation of privacy is downright horrifying. It's not hard to see how this could be abused in very dangerous ways."
  • Sends Children Mixed Messages, writes Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:

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.

But when schools take that personal information, indiscriminately invading privacy (and, of course, punishing students who use proxies and other privacy tools to avoid official surveillance), they send a much more powerful message: your privacy is worthless and you shouldn't try to protect it.

  • Don't Blame the School Yet, warns Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica. She suspects things could have "played out differently." For instance: "If it was a MacBook, for example, Blake may have used the built-in Photo Booth software to take a picture of himself doing something questionable while at home, which may or may not be against the school's policy ... If that photo got posted online or even synced back with the school's admins the next day, it's possible that [the school] was given access to the photo for disciplinary purposes."
  • This Is Happening More and MoreĀ  A number of bloggers are referencing a recent PBS Frontline episode on high tech schools. At 4:37 into the clip, a teacher proudly demonstrates how he can spy on kids from his computer to make sure they're on task:

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