Laptops in schools: Study aid or spy tool?

March 8, 2010 — by Sophia Cooper

They’re in many students’ bedrooms. They hide under piles of clothes, sit atop desks, lie in between blankets on beds. No one suspects a thing.

That’s how the students of Harrington High School in Ardmore, Penn., viewed the school-issues laptops they received freshmen year. That is, until they discovered the school can remotely access the webcams installed in the MacBooks and see what the student is doing.

A lawsuit against the high school was filed on Feb. 11 by a sophomore’s family, saying the student had been approached by school officials three months earlier and was critiqued for “inappropriate” behavior in his own home. How did the school have this information? Through “indiscriminate remote activation of a webcam” and “intentional interception of … private webcam images” by the school, in which they alleged turned on the student’s webcam while he was in the privacy of his own home.

While the school district is denying activation of laptop cameras when students are not in school, a privacy frenzy has caught fire as students worry if their school is doing the same thing. Many teens rarely turn off their laptops. They listen to music, watch YouTube videos, do homework or even just sitting there. Many laptops reside in students’ bedrooms, one of the few places students consider 100 percent their space and their privacy. There’s no way to tell if the webcam has been activated, so how can the students know whether or not the school has creeped on them while they are in their bedrooms?

The laptops are a beneficial study aid, but this new flux of security concerns may change people’s view of the technology. Schools can protest the installation of remote access for the webcams, a common feature on newer laptop models, all they want, but unless students are computer geniuses, they won’t be able to prove the software isn’t on their laptops.

Just the theory of remotely accessing a student’s laptop webcam is a clear violation of privacy. Some schools say it is installed to help locate stolen products, but others do admit the software is used to check in on student’s behavior during school hours.

Thankfully, Saratoga High does not have this problem. But for the schools that do, solutions are available: Students can sign a waiver that allows administrators to remotely access the webcams during school hours only if it is a necessity, or schools can simply uninstall the software.

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