A majority of the Rhode Island school districts with “1-1” programs where each student is issued a laptop have a blanket policy of spying on the students and everything they do on their laptops, during, before and after school hours, on or off school premises, without any evidence (or even suspicion ) of wrongdoing.
The schools analogize this to school locker searches, in which students are denied any Fourth Amendment protections. But that (very dubious) principle is being stretched beyond the breaking point, as school lockers are in schools, whereas these laptop searches are being carried out remotely, everywhere, anywhere.
This isn’t so different from the policies asserted by employers who require workers to take devices home, then assert the right to spy on them using those devices, installing their own certificates so they can stage “man-in-the-middle” interceptions of private sessions between employees and their email providers, financial institutions, etc.
Employers say that employees should just maintain two separate constellations of devices, one personal, and not conduct any personal business on them. This is at best unrealistic, and at worst cynical bullshit. Every study conducted of these situations shows that no one — not careful lawyers, not secrecy-conscious spies, not criminals, not government employees — can reliably separate their work and personal business on separate devices.
Worse yet is the idea — further normalized by the school districts — that your employer has the absolute right to spy on everything you do while you’re on the job. If intercepting and reading your personal email is fair game, then why not install hidden mics in the parking lot to listen in when your spouse drops in to discuss their cancer diagnosis during a tense one-on-one by the car?
Schools have long been accused of serving as a kind of training ground for the depredations of the industrial workplace — regimented places of silent sitting in neatly squared-up rows where even going to the toilet requires permission and a clanging bell signals the start and end of your tasks. But this is some next-level 21st century stuff.
The ACLU of Rhode Island points out that rich kids will get to bring their own devices to school and opt out of the surveillance. They’ve drafted model legislation that “would limit when an administrator or third party can remotely access devices to instances where there is reasonable belief that misconduct, as spelled out in school policies, took place, or if a warrant is present.”
ACLU-RI raises the spectre of the Lower Merion School District, a story I broke in 2010, in which the wealthiest school district in America issued mandatory laptops to its students, then secretly operated their webcams to shoot thousands of covert photos of disfavored students — in states of undress, asleep, awake, at home and at school.
Providing students with some expectation of privacy is important for a number of reasons. First, the home has often been deemed the quintessential private space beyond the reach of government snooping in the absence of exigent circumstances or judicial authorization. The notion of the home as one’s castle dates back centuries as both a social and legal norm. Using new technology as an excuse to invade this sanctum should be forcefully rejected, as the consequences for privacy rights of both adults and minors are potentially enormous.
Further, some school districts specifically acknowledge that the 1:1 computers can be used for non-school work at home, and at least one policy encourage parents to use the devices. In other words, even accepting the assumption, which the ACLU does not, that a school district should have the right to monitor a student’s educational activities miles away, even though conducted on his or her own time, it is another matter entirely for schools to be able to find out how the device is being used by non-students and by minors legitimately using the computer for private purposes. Yet all twenty-two school districts that participate in the 1:1 program have cautioned within their policies that students who use the device have no) expectation) of) privacy whatsoever. Typical is Narragansett’s policy, which states that students “understand that there is no expectation of privacy when using the District network and devices.”
Instead, several policies authorize school officials to remotely monitor the device outside of school – including accessing files and emails and in some cases even the webcam – and to physically inspect the computer without the need for any suspicion of misconduct. Most 1:1 policies covered in this report apprise students that every document, file and email may be generally accessible to the scrutiny of administrators inside and outside of school for any reason.