It used to be that students were fearful of their teachers, thinking that they could see everything they were doing even when their backs were turned — as though they had eyes on the backs of their heads.  It seems as though one school has taken that idea a little too far and started taking advantage of the eyes they gave to students for free to spy on them when the kids thought they were in the privacy of their own home.

The FBI is now investigating the Lower Merion school district just outside Philadelphia after one student filed a lawsuit against the district for remotely activating his web camera and taking pictures of him in his home. The school had contacted him about what they “saw” and he was disciplined by the school for partaking in “inappropriate behavior” — behavior that they had only witnessed through the images that they had taken on his camera.

The school had previously argued it only used the cameras remotely when they were having trouble locating the computers, but this seems difficult to believe when they admitted the only evidence against the student was information they gained from activating his camera.

I am reminded when I was in high school and smoking was banned from all school property. The students who were smokers would cross the street and smoke in front of the stores near the school. There were no teachers who would take the time to cross the street and crack down on students smoking there because it was no longer any of their business.

Similarly, the student at home is, and should be, the concern of the parents or caretakers of said students, not the school itself. The only time the school should have any say over what the student is doing is during school hours, while the student is on school property.

It concerns me any school could have this kind of insightful Panopticonic gaze into the private life of its students. In a world where computer technicians easily turn into peeping toms, are we so far off from a place where students will wear dog collars to track their location and monitor in on their private conversation?


  1. This is a fascinating case, Gordon. I’m sure some people would argue that since the parents aren’t getting the job done, this sort of peeping is necessary.
    I think the school should say, “If you use this laptop, we have the right to track you and watch you via the webcam. The webcam lens must not be obstructed in any way during the time you have the laptop on your possession.” That might lead to some better behavior in the students.
    The “smoking on school property” was a big issue in my high school, too — but the powers changed that rule to “no smoking” inside the school or outside the school. You were only allowed to leave campus for lunch, so if you came in from the outside any other time and you smelled of fresh cigarette smoke, you were immediately suspended. That policy worked pretty well. You actually had to pass a “sniff test” from teachers and administrators manning the doors during breaks between classes.

  2. That’s the catch, David. The school doesn’t give the students an option as to whether or not they can use the laptops as it is part of the curriculum.
    I wonder if your school allowed for the possibility that a student might have passed through a group of construction workers having a smoke break?

  3. Right! “You’re required to have this laptop, and we’re going to watch you.” All you have to do is notify — and the student’s privacy issue is nullified. The laptop becomes a Panopticonic extension of the school at home and I like that. Let the students buy their own laptops if they want privacy at home while doing their schoolwork — and if they’re doing more than schoolwork on those laptops, then the school has every right and intention to know what their property is being used for in the field.
    Our high school was pretty isolated, so if your fingers and clothes reeked of cigarette smoke — there was really no other explanation other than you were smoking. The non-smokers definitely stayed far away from the smokers on campus.

  4. Ah, but that’s the catch — these weren’t poor students who couldn’t have afforded their own laptops. They were students who had the laptops assigned to them just as they were handed books — non-optional. Does that change it at all?

  5. It doesn’t change it for me, Gordon. School property has no assumption of private use — be it at home, at a bus stop or in a restaurant. If you use the item, you should expect, by default, that everything you do is being watched and recorded.

  6. I remember having a pretty regimented life as far as my school life goes as I grew up in a residential school, I am sure if we had laptop then the policy would have been the same. Would I like it? Of course not…
    Was/ is it necessary?? THat’s the million dollar question…

  7. Well writ! Of course, the school can’t stop a student from disabling the camera or from using the computer in a completely dark room… or could they?

  8. No cameras about when I went to school… then again, they didn’t give us laptops. Then again, they could just walk into our dorm rooms whenever they wanted…

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