As a rule of thumb, a scandal has reached a tipping point when it inherits the suffix “gate,” and the story of the Pennsylvania school district accused of spying on its students through school-issued laptops is now being referred to as Webcamgate.
At This Week in Education, Alexander Russo, as he is wont to do, chides the media’s sensationalizing the story. ”The spyware was intended only to be used in cases of theft rather than as some sort of ongoing monitoring program and was only used in ‘a handful’ of cases by two authorized IT officials, according to the district,” he writes. A-Rus surely–I hope–doesn’t mean to imply an abuse of authority is OK if it’s only done in “a handful” of cases, rather than as part of a program of abuse. A major problem is that users of the school’s laptops reportedly were not explicitly made aware of the security feature and made to sign a waiver acknowledging it. Plus, there are lots of ways to track down missing laptops other than by remote cameras.
Here’s a surprising piece of this story that I’ve not heard discussed: The Philadelphia Inquirer reports “more than a year ago, two Harriton High School student council members privately confronted the principal when they learned that the school could covertly photograph students using the laptop’s cameras.”
When [the principal] said it was true, the students told the principal they were worried about privacy rights, and asked questions about other kinds of monitoring. Could, for example, the school system read saved files on their computers? At a minimum, the student leaders told the principal, the student body should be formal warned about any surveillance. But nothing happened, according to other council members who were briefed afterward, and the student leaders returned a short while later to once again tell the principal that they were greatly concerned about a potential invasion of privacy. Again, nothing happened.
Say what? Student council members knew of the potential for the laptops to take pictures for over a year and said nothing? Perhaps those students need to brush up on their knowledge of the Constitution, specifically the 1st Amendment. I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t make noise about this before the issue blew up. A lost teachable moment, at the very least.
For a detailed disussion of the case, see The Volokh Conspiracy, a group blog written largely by law professors. George Washington University’s Orin Kerr offers a tentative bottom line: “The schools violated the Fourth Amendment rights of students when they actually turned the cameras on when the computers were at home. On the other hand, the schools did not violate the federal statutory surveillance laws.”