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Spying – the new black?

on February 19, 2010

Today I came across a very disturbing story by Mike Masnick at techdirt. Mike reports about a class action suit by some students who claim the school was monitoring them through the webcam from laptops they were issued by said school. The issue came to light after one student was disciplined for inappropriate behavior at home with an image taken by his laptop’s webcam as evidence.

Mike also links to a feature by frontline  of yet another school which also claimed to be monitoring their students at home through the webcam and other activities on the laptops they were given.

My first reaction was disbelief. Such level of monitoring on the school premises would be something I could maybe accept but at home after school hours? After reading the details on the class action suit my first thought was, is this even legal? I am no lawyer and have no idea if such behaviour is legal or not but it seems to me like a very bad case of invasion of privacy. After watching the frontline report in which the school official detailed their activity I wondered whether there is actually a loop hole being exploited? Companies are allowed to monitor employee emails because the employee would be using the company’s infrastructure to send the email through. From the frontline report I got the distinct impression that the school doesn’t turn on the camera to spy on their students but only monitor the output of the camera if it is already running. From a legal point of view I guess it might be the same argument as email. The school is only monitoring the usage of its device through its infrastructure (I am assuming they’re providing the student with internet access as well).

However let’s put the legality issue, on which I can only speculate, aside.  How is it that nowadays a school can even think about doing such a thing, much less action it? To me it sounds unbelievable and it’s not just schools, the news is full of stories about people monitoring spouses through hidden GPS devices in their cars, mobile phones with spy software installed on them. Technology has really moved forward these last few years and there are a lot of options for anyone who wants to spy on someone else. People seem to think that since you are able to spy on someone, then it’s okay to do so. Obviously this is not the case and shouldn’t be done even if it were.

Then there are the unintended consequences. Students are being brought up with the notion that they can’t trust anyone, not even their schools. They are being exposed to technology, which obviously is a great thing, but at the same time they are being taught that such technology is hostile to them.  Another unintended consequence could be that this laptop is the only computer with an internet connection at home and the child’s parents use it for internet banking or some other confidential activity. On the frontline feature it was obvious that monitoring on the machine was total and it was trivial for anyone monitoring to see all that was typed. What if a father logs on to his company’s network from his son’s laptop? The company he works for would be exposed.

As I claimed in many of my previous articles the attack vectors you need to protect yourself against are truly endless, although I have to admit that I didn’t really see this coming at all. One really needs to be vigilant and monitor his system for any suspicious activities as you really do not know where the next attack is from or who is watching you.

John Mello March 1, 20102:50 am

Emmanuel–according to legal experts quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the use of a computer’s built-in camera to spy on students is indeed illegal.

Widener University law professor Stephen Henderson told the newspaper tha using a laptop camera for home surveillance would violate wiretap laws, even if done to catch a thief.

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy watchdog group in Washington, said that if the allegations are true, “this is an outrageous invasion of individual privacy.”

And Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told the Associated Press: “School officials cannot, any more than police, enter into the home either electronically or physically without an invitation or a warrant.”

According to school officials, the monitoring feature is supposed to used when a computer is stolen. That seems like a good idea to me, but obviously this case illustrates how even a good idea can become a bad one in the hands of paranoid administrators.

Emmanuel Carabott March 2, 20104:28 pm

Hi John, I completely agree. Obviously at first glance this is completely out of line and a total invasion of privacy; however, I very much doubt that a school would engage in something like this without seeking out legal counsel. I am sure they have a basis on which to think they cannot be held liable for what they are doing. From my limited law knowledge I suspect there might be a small loophole – what if the hardware is theirs (which is definitely the case), the connection is theirs (I don’t really know about this but I guess it is possible they offered an Internet connection together with the laptop) and they monitor the camera only when it is already active (I think I read something this was the case I believe it was in the Frontline report not sure)? I wonder if that would still breach privacy laws?

Obviously it would still be as wrong as you can get but it might be legal. Possibly analogue to a company monitoring its email. Just my opinion :)

Tom March 14, 201012:57 pm

Maybe there was a clause in the agreement when the students took ownership of the laptops that stated this surveillance could happen? If they signed such a contract, would this make it legal?

Emmanuel Carabott March 22, 201010:34 am

Hi Tom, As I said I am not a lawyer so I cannot reply with any certainty; however, I do know that there have been cases where employees took action against the company for spying on them through email for example and that is deemed legal because the infrastructure monitored belonged to the company itself.
This could possibly be something similar if the school paid for the Internet connection as well as the laptop.
That being said there is the concept of expectation for privacy, in that one cannot monitor people in an environment were they expect privacy such as restrooms, changing rooms and such locations. Now, if like you say they were advised that they were being monitored that might remove the expectation for privacy possibly?
As I said I am no lawyer but I guess it is possible that if the students were advised they’re being monitored that it could be legally ok! In any case I would say that it’s morally wrong however way you put it. Such a system will do much more harm then good in my opinion.

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