Webcams gone wrong: School sued for remote activation

Here's one from the "Seriously, you didn't think this was a bad idea?" files: the Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, has been accused of remotely activating the webcams in its students' laptops issued through their 1:1 program without the students' knowledge or consent.

Here's one from the "Seriously, you didn't think this was a bad idea?" files: the Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, has been accused of remotely activating the webcams in its students' laptops issued through their 1:1 program without the students' knowledge or consent. While the case has yet to see a courtroom, it looks to be ugly for the school district and potentially detrimental to other 1:1 programs nationwide.

According to ComputerWorld,

Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., said they first found out about the alleged spying last November after their son Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of "improper behavior in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

An assistant principal at Harriton later confirmed that the district could remotely activate the Webcam in students' laptops.

Oh boy. Not surprisingly, the Robbins have launched a lawsuit that has been granted class action status, allowing other parents and students to join. What I have to wonder is whose bright idea was it to fire up the webcams in the first place? And then show photos taken using the webcams to students? Seriously? I know us school administrators do some stupid things, but this should probably win an award of some sort.

So what are the lesson learned here (whether or not the school is found in the wrong)? First of all, what students do at home is their business. It's remarkably easy to bounce their web traffic on school-assigned computers off the school content filter and that's completely appropriate. It's also completely reasonable to re-image the machines regularly to make sure that they don't contain inappropriate content or malware. Do not turn on their webcams when the computers are sitting in students' bedrooms. Duh.

Secondly, keep parents informed. If you have the ability to remotely control computers off-campus, make sure everyone is aware of it and has signed an acknowledgement. If you'll be monitoring web traffic while they're off-campus, have them sign off on that too. The remote control feature is very common in large deployments as it allows for remote maintenance, troubleshooting, and other helpdesk features. However, the manner in which it will be used needs to be clearly outlined.

Third, don't throw the baby out with the bath water. A school district (allegedly) made a very bad choice. This doesn't mean that 1:1 is fraught with privacy issues and should be abandoned. Rather, it means that people need to be upfront and intelligent about their 1:1 implementations. It also doesn't mean that schools should only deploy computers without webcams. Those same webcams can enable Skype sessions with instructors or peers and facilitate interactive learning opportunities with students around the globe.

Finally, respect your students. There is no need to go searching for their wrongdoings and there is no need to violate any reasonable expectations of privacy. There are more than enough safety nets that can be implemented on-campus to ensure that computers are well-maintained and free of questionable content that still allow kids to use computer resources somewhat naturally.

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