School Laptops and Spying—and Media

by on February 23, 2010 · 17 comments

Fellow TLFer Julian Sanchez has written (twice) at Cato@Liberty on the big school-using-laptops-to-spy-on-kids case.

Indulging my contrarian habit, I’m taking a little bit of a different view, though not necessarily an inconsistent one. While it seems error to me that the school district issued laptops with a potentially invasive security system, failing to fully inform parents, I think a lot more facts have to come out before we reach legal conclusions.

I started to feel some contrary comin’ on when I read the lengthy commentary of a parent at the school, posted on a privacy colleague’s Facebook wall. Among other things, she said:

The minor in question is a truly bad kid. [cites supporting facts] He had broken two laptop computers and had been issued a loaner computer with the explicit instructions not to take it off school property. It disappeared from the school and when questioned he told the school it had been stolen from him. There is quite a bit of theft and laptops had been a target. The kids seemed to know about the security system in place, I didn’t know about it which I think was wrong — the school has apologized for this. The school activated the security system realized the computer was in use and the webcam took a still shot. The minor in question was sitting in front of the webcam, the rumor is with drugs. The photo was sent to the police which apparently was standard procedure for stolen property and not related to anything else.

Maybe the “drugs” were Mike & Ike’s candies. The plaintiff’s lawyer says so. (Consider the veracity of a kid explaining things to his parents and their counsel, though, and of a trial lawyer seeking to lead a class action.)

Sugar pills or not, if the laptop is AWOL from school—presumptively stolen—I don’t see that it would be unreasonable to use the security system to discover its location, and the camera to capture images of who is using it. If there are statutes that would prevent that, I think a court would find a way to avoid applying them, be it on the theory that the putative thief assumed the risk of being surveilled, unclean hands, or some other basis.

The reporting and commentary has been a little overwrought. Better facts will determine what law should apply. Parents at the school have started a Facebook group to discuss this and share the rest of the story given that the school district has, well, lawyered up.

I tipped a reporter at an outlet I respect about this parent’s version of events. The reporter was alternately dismissive of sources that weren’t “official” and highly defensive when I suggested that her writing and reporting appeared to be preserving controversy rather than getting to the bottom of things. So much for relying on media—even new media—for getting information out.

Maybe spun-up outrage will cause better policies in this area than would otherwise result. Maybe we’ll learn that the security system was used for routine, inappropriate spying on kids. But as a legal case, there’s a lot more to be learned before we should draw conclusions.

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