Privacy: Sam Starts Writing Again Edition [privacy]

Well.  It's been a long time since I've written about the news.  So, this might be a little rough (or just a little short).

If you haven't heard, the Lower Merion School District in the suburbs of Philadelphia has installed a mandatory spying program on the laptops students are required to purchase.  The spyware is capable of monitoring students both at school AND at home, and can hear conversations and take photos and video via the built-in webcams (reports indicate that the school uses Macbooks).  This was discovered when a student was reprimanded for eating candies that looked like pill capsules.  He was doing this AT HOME, but the computer took a photograph of the activity and sent it to the school, which then found it necessary to mention it to the student.
Since then, the school has since denied spying on students, and then was interviewed by PBS and seemed to know VERY WELL what was happening.  The ACLU and EFF have taken up the case of the student's parents, who are suing the district for spying on their child, and the FBI is on the criminal case as we speak.  Since the lawsuit was announced, several other school districts have been called out for using similar tactics.

Whoa.  My first reaction to all this is to vomit violently, all over the faces of the principals and administrations involved.  That may not be the most mature reaction, but to be honest, every single person who ever attended a public school remembers the draconian tactics implemented by administrations in the name of maintaining "order" and controlling the behavior of adolescent, naturally unpredictable human beings.  I was furious about the infringement on rights back then, and I am furious about it now.  Some pundits ask "when did this happen?"  which is simply ridiculous and falsely assumes that this is a new phenomenon.  Administrations are always looking for new ways to exert control on the lives of their students.  I remember having to take drug tests in order to participate in sports.  Many school districts require a breathalyzer test before entering school functions.  Detention has always been assigned for running in the halls, public displays of affection, arguing with teachers (because dialog is the root of all evil), and even for laughing too much.  I remember seeing The Breakfast Club recently and thinking that despite its attempt at hyperbole, it is a rather accurate depiction of what high school is like in some places.

Some people have been making the argument that it's better that SOMEONE is paying attention to these children, that parents are neglecting their duties and thus the schools must pick up the slack.  I have two huge issues with that:

1.  What we're talking about here is a gigantic breach of privacy that could also constitute the criminal charge of child pornography if any inappropriate images were captured.  Some parents are not attentive, present, and child abuse is a real issue in the world.  But taking a photo every time a student opens their laptop doesn't stop child abuse, and it sends the message to these students that privacy is not important and encourages repetition of the behavior.

2.  It is INFINITELY more effective to mentor children and positively reinforce behavior by providing opportunities for participation in school-related and extracurricular events than it is to try to punish every little infraction committed.  In fact, children (being much smarter than most school administrators), when confronted with such asinine bullshit as this laptop spying will spend energy evading the rules, resulting in a behavioral arms-race which administrators are bound to lose.  And additionally, this sort of necessary rules-evasion leads to the development of life-long skills which certainly aid in the committing of illegal activities, some of which is bound to be more heinous than eating a jujyfruit in front of a laptop webcam.

At some point, school administrators and our government as a whole will have to recognize children as viable human beings.  Until then, each and every child that enters the public school system is doomed to a sub-standard education (check our rankings against other developed nations sometime.  you will be surprised), draconian and punishment-intensive administration, and a complete disregard for their educational and emotional needs.  Can you imagine how far the money spent on spyware might have gone if it were invested in after-school programs or community mentoring?  How about if it were applied to teacher salaries?

I'm listening to Hall and Oates right now.  They sum up my thoughts perfectly:

"You're out of Touch," administrators.

(photo courtesy of


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A blog about social change, written from Brooklyn, New York. Currently looking for contributors.