Investigation of School Official Monitoring Students Raises Issue of Privacy Rights

28 02 2010

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Facebook pages, Twitter updates, YouTube videos, blogs and other popular social media tools certainly demonstrate our culture’s tendency to favor transparency over privacy. Still, the recent controversy involving an FBI investigation into allegations that a Pennsylvania school official remotely monitored a student in his home causes one to question the boundaries of personal privacy.

The family of the student filed a lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District, accusing an assistant principal of spying on their son through his laptop’s webcam.

CNN reports:

“District Superintendent Christopher McGinley rejected allegations. ‘At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security-tracking software,’ he said. ‘We believe that the administrator at Harriton has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family.’”

Still, school officials admit they failed to make families aware of laptop features that allow the school to monitor the computer hardware.

The Lower Merion School District would be within their legal rights to remotely access student laptops if one were reported lost or stolen. The correct procedure, so as to not violate privacy laws, is to request access from the district’s technology and security department and receive authorization before utilizing the security feature.

The development of new technologies such as the laptops’ security-tracking software certainly presents several advantages, yet the potential invasion of privacy undermines the benefits. The capability of school officials to remotely monitor unsuspecting students in their own homes has frightening implications. A simple abuse of power can easily result in the potential violation of students’ privacy rights, as demonstrated in the ongoing Pennsylvania investigation.

The ongoing Lower Marion School District investigation isn’t the only case regarding student privacy issues. A New York middle school assistant principal, Dan Ackerman, is at the center of a similar controversy. After the introduction of a new technology program, aimed at enhancing the education of its students, Ackerman openly details how he can activate student webcams and monitor their activities remotely.

In an interview with Frontline, Ackerman said:

“6th and 7th grade have cameras. This kid looks like they’re editing their MySpace page…they don’t even realize that we’re watching. I always like to mess with them and take a picture…nine times out of 10 they duck out of the way, then they shut down and get to work.”

For the sake of maintaining a certain degree of discretion, both online and in day-to-day life, let’s hope this is not a lasting trend. New technologies promoting transparency ought to be embraced, but those that endanger basic human privacy rights warrant serious re-evaluation.

By Ashley Dischinger

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