Late last week, a story broke from Pennsylvania that Harriton High School had been using the webcams on school-issued laptops to spy on students; school officials have said that this was done so that the laptops could be recovered in the case that they were stolen or lost (even though students report being approached by school administrators about questionable behavior). This is a big deal for many reasons–invasion of privacy, failure to notify parents of the practice, and the fact that the laptops were issued by a public school with government funding. However, the thing that has me worried is the cue for hysteria. At The LAMP we talk to lots of parents about their fears of their children going online; a few frightening and major news stories are all that is needed for many people to be convinced that the Internet is an inherently dangerous place. I’ve talked to more than a handful of parents who say they don’t allow their kids online at all, because it just isn’t safe. When a story like the one from Harriton High is released, I can’t help but think about how–or if–the incident will change the way media is perceived by parents.
One of the worst things about the digital divide is the potential for fear in the absence of knowledge. People who are not media literate fail to understand the boundaries of new media, and are not in a position to get to the truth usually because they are either intimidated or prohibited by economical constraints. So, “Internet safety” may mean nothing at all, or it might mean installing spyware on the family computer to track activity. Unfortunately, it does not always translate to honest and open communication, or parent and child sharing the Internet together. This perpetuates a culture of fear, easily set off by overwrought headlines to stories which are largely the exception and not the rule to managing an online presence.
Stories like what happened at Harriton High School can be the sort of thing that keep parents from letting their kids go online, and worse, it can give a bad name to any program where students are issued laptops by their school. If I were a parent who heard about what happened, I too would wonder about whether my child’s school had told me the whole truth about what was on the device. Programs where children are automatically given laptops are still fairly rare, especially in the world of public schools, and they can vary greatly, but the Harriton High story raises some valid points. What are the student’s rights to privacy on their laptops? What kind of tracking software should be reasonably permitted on laptops lent out by a school? And, if the laptop should be stolen or lost, who is responsible for replacing it? I realize that the situation is much more complex than this, but at its most basic I parallel the laptop program to the programs which allowed me and my schoolmates to rent or borrow instruments for music class or band. I knew perfectly well that if my clarinet was damaged or lost while it was in my possession, my parents would have to pay for it, and I would be in big trouble. Shouldn’t it be the same way for laptops? A student reports it missing, the school remotely wipes the laptop clean of any data and personal information, and the student is stuck with the bill. No need for webcam spying.
Perhaps the school was overreacting in terms of the lengths it was willing to go to ensure that school property could be recovered. Perhaps the terms of laptop-issue programs should be more closely monitored by the state or school district. What happened at Harriton High is upsetting, but don’t blame the laptop.
PS–Be sure to check out The LAMP’s revised “Beginner’s Guide to Going Online,” available for free download.