School laptop users beware!
February 20th, 2010 by scaredpoet

Quite a lot of school districts are experimenting with the idea of issuing laptops to their students to enhance learning initiatives.  On the face of it, this seems all fine and good: parents don’t have to buy hardware for their kids, and the schools all know that their students have the technology they need to do their homework.

There’s just one little problem: naturally, kids – and even adults – will do a little more on their computers than just academics and serious work.  It’s just a fact of life.

So, if you have a school or work-issued laptop, and haven’t figured this out already, let me warn you: you MIGHT be under surveillance.  And if your school or work-issued laptop has a webcam?  Consider investing in some electrical tape, and covering that bad boy up when you’re not actively using it.

The web is totally abuzz this weekend, after some kid in Pennsylvania recently found out the hard way that maybe the school-issued laptop program isn’t totally altruistic:

On November 11, an assistant principal at Harriton High School told the plaintiffs’ son that he was caught engaging in “improper behavior” in his home and it was captured in an image via the webcam.

According to the Robbinses’ complaint, neither they nor their son, Blake, were informed of the school’s ability to access the webcam remotely at any time. It is unclear what the boy was doing in his room when the webcam was activated or if any punishment was given out.

Now, let’s just let this sink in for a moment. It isn’t specified what kind of “improper behavior” the kid was engaging in, but it does leave one open to wonder.  There’s a LOT of things teens will do in their rooms thinking no one else is watching (though granted, in the age of MySpace and Youtube, sometimes they do things totally knowing that people are watching, but let’s set that aside for a minute).  In fact, if you really think about it, there’s lot of opportunities for very inappropriate things to be captured on a webcam that some creepy assistant principal in a high school is accessing without the kid’s knowledge.  Voyeuristic tendencies, anyone?

The school may have every right to regulate activities in the school.  They do not have the right to govern appropriate or punish “inappropriate” activity in the home, or even worse, in the bedroom of an underage kid.  That’s the job of the parents.

Let this be a good lesson to those who think that privacy is only of concern to those doing something wrong.  Consider for a moment, that you have kids, and your kid is changing clothes in his or her bedroom… a perfectly normal, perfectly innocent, and perfectly appropriate activity.  Now, imagine that this random creep – who by the way, works at the local high school – is accessing your kid’s webcam without their knowing and watching them change clothes. How, by any stretch of the imagination, is this acceptable?

If you’re stuck with a school issues laptop, here’s what I recommend:

  • Assume that everything you do on, in front of, or within earshot of the laptop is being monitored and probably saved and archived somewhere.

  • Electrical tape on that webcam.  Seriously.

  • Read the fine print on any agreements and documents you had to sign in accepting the laptop.  Find out exactly what you’ve agreed that the issuer can see, hear or monitor.  And assume that the issuer can and will overstep their boundaries.

  • If you can and if your agreement doesn’t expressly forbid it, consider wiping the laptop clean and re-installing the operating system and software with known clean versions.  This might not circumvent any hardware measures, but most software keyloggers and monitoring programs should be removed.

  • If you can’t wipe clean, try a LiveCD.  This lets you boot an operating system off a DVD or CD-ROM, without running or affecting what’s on the computer’s hard drive.  The potentially bad news: most LiveCDs are Linux-based. This means that most web surfing and basic stuff will work just fine, but specific Windows programs won’t run.  On the other hand, most web stuff that you would want to do outside of the prying eyes of a school or business should work just fine in Linux, if you’re willing to explore a little.

  • Consider ditching the school or work-issued laptop and get your own.  Is it really worth getting something for “free” if it means you can be creepily spied on?

To be sure, the school caught up in this webcam flap did issue a letter to parents about the situation, stating:

Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. District laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. The security feature, which was disabled today, was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student.

Hmm, sounds to me like the laptop definitely wasn’t stolen!

There’s also some dirt on the kid who was suspended.   This article suggests, but doesn’t actually prove for certain, that the “inappropriate behavior” mentioned was in fact, pot smoking.  Okay, fair enough.  But even assuming the kid was smoking pot in his bedroom, that’s still not the school’s right or domain to control.  Smoking pot at school should definitely be punishable by the school, but not in the home. That, once again, is a responsibility that falls solely on the parents.

One Response  
  • Nathan Grubb writes:
    February 20th, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    On the other hand, there’s a third possible solution: buying a new hard drive, throwing an OS on there, removing the old one, storing it safely, using yours, and by the time you need to give the laptop back, you could throw their old hard drive back in. It’s a cheaper solution to getting a new laptop altogether, and it could circumvent some rules about replacing the original OS on their drive.

    However, this solution is a little complicated for some, and they might forbid avoiding their big brother like surveillance like that, and personally, if I was going to a school and I found out they did that shit, I’d take it up with the superintendent, and if he refused to address the issue or change anything, new school time.

    But if you don’t want to change schools, definitely do scaredpoet’s measure here, at least as a cautionary measure.

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