Big Brother is watching students (II)

BoingBoing is doing a fantastic job adding more and more to this already horrifically creepy story about school issues laptops being used to spy on students. I’m glad to know that the EFF and ACLU have gotten in on this now.

Anyway, a couple highlights, about the district policy:

* Possession of a monitored Macbook was required for classes

* Possession of an unmonitored personal computer was forbidden and would be confiscated

* Jailbreaking a school laptop in order to secure it or monitor it against intrusion was an offense which merited expulsion

Honestly, it’s got to be pretty cool if your school district has so much spare money that it can afford to get laptops for its students and loan them out1. If nothing else, making sure kids are up with the technology from the start gives them a good advantage, I think. But when it tips over in to requiring that students use these laptops and punishing students that have a different laptop they want to use, that’s creepy, and I really makes it sound like the intent from the start was to tightly monitor the kids. I could even maybe understand it if they were focusing on in-school use, since letting kids have laptops in class is a recipe for not getting anything done unless there are some real restrictions on what they can do with those laptops2. But that this overbearing monitoring extended so obviously outside of school makes it impossible for me to see it as anything other than intrusive and just… creepy.

And they sure were. A little more detail on the kid who was punished for something he did at home:

However, the lawyer for the Robbins family says that their son was called into the vice-principal’s office and confronted with a photo secretly snapped by his laptop’s webcam while he was eating Mike & Ike’s candy, and he was accused of taking drugs.

Way to go, Lower Merion School District. Way to go. Even if the kid were actually taking drugs, doesn’t that become a law enforcement issue if it takes place off of school grounds? Oh yeah, except the police can’t do that sort of thing without a warrant. Thank you Fourth Amendment.

From an article about the response of the EFF and ACLU:

Even if the school district had gotten students or parents to agree to the monitoring as a condition of receiving the notebooks, the spying would have still be unconstitutional, according to Bankston. He told us that private schools or employers can ask you to sign away your right to privacy, but not a government entity like a public school. “To condition one’s receipt of government benefits on your surrendering a constitutional right is itself unconstitutional,” he said.

Of all things, this is making me think of one of my favorite movies, Enemy of the State; toward the end, one of the shadowy bad guys, Tom Reynolds, is trying to justify how important it is for the government to spy on people:

We won the war. Now we’re fighting the peace. It’s a lot more volatile. Now we’ve got ten million crackpots out there with sniper scopes, sarin gas and C-4. Ten-year-olds go on the Net, downloading encryption we can barely break, not to mention instructions on how to make a low-yield nuclear device. Privacy’s been dead for years because we can’t risk it. The only privacy that’s left is the inside of your head. Maybe that’s enough. You think we’re the enemy of democracy, you and I? I think we’re democracy’s last hope.

The idea of course being that privacy (and in many ways, personal freedom) should take the back seat to the illusion of safety. If my earlier rantings didn’t make it obvious enough, this is not something I agree with. And while I understand not wanting kids to use school issued laptops to surf porn during class, the entire concept of the web nanny is famously flawed. And I also tend to think (admittedly, it may be easy for me since I’m not a mom of a kid of that age) that treating a kid like he or she lives in a police state isn’t going to do them any favors when they turn 18.

These are big issues that get bigger each day with the march of technology. David Brin has an interesting take on the issue of surveillance, transparency, and privacy in the Transparent Society. I don’t agree with what Brin says in a lot of ways3 (I tend to agree more with Bruce Schneier) but one point he does make well is that a major problem in surveillance is that it only goes one way. The government (in this case the school) is able to spy on you without your knowledge, and there’s very little that can be done to hold them accountable unless they do something phenomenally stupid, such as trying to suspend you for eating candy in your own home. The students are not allowed to monitor the school to make sure that the school is acting with the same responsibility that it is demanding of its students.

Larry King got the last word in Enemy of the State, and I think he deserves to have it here as well.

How do we draw the line – draw the line between protection of national security, obviously the government’s need to obtain intelligence data, and the protection of civil liberties, particularly the sanctity of my home? You’ve got no right to come into my home!

1 – Though also knowing of many a district that can’t even afford to get its kids new books while others can do this kind of extravagant spending tarnishes the shiny.

2 – I’ve been in a lot of lecture halls and watched a lot of supposedly more mature and restrained university students use laptops. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times that said laptop usage involved actual note-taking rather than Facebook and Youtube.

3 – Another of Brin’s ideas is that in a truly transparent society, everyone would be familiar with everyone else’s secrets, which leads to a sort of mutually assured destruction if we don’t respect each other’s illusion of privacy. Interesting, but not a place I’d personally like to live in.

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