By: John C. Dvorak
I advise people using loaned computers to always assume there is some sort of spyware planted.
The recent flap over a Pennsylvania school district’s use of tracking software on schoolissued laptops, supposedly to locate those that were stolen, makes me wonder how much illegal snooping goes on everywhere, whether initially intended or not.
If you didn’t follow this story from the outset, the school district, near Philadelphia, provided students with free Apple laptops that had a theft-protection scheme in place; the laptop cameras could be turned on remotely for security purposes. So if a person stole the laptop, he or she could be identified on the camera. This was the basic justification for the program.
The case took an interesting turn when it turned out that the district had captured 56,000 photos from various laptops. Catching a high school kid naked in his or her room would constitute the collection of kiddie porn, another complication for these boneheads. The school district says none of the images caught anyone naked, though this seems hard to believe.
Unfortunately every sort of scheme like this one spirals out of control. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So maybe the school officials or their minions or both decide that this ability to turn on cam is more than a tool; it’s a fun toy! One kid captured in the images and his family are suing the school district, and the FBI is investigating the situation for illegal wiretapping, with possible criminal implications.
The Need for Ethics 101
Very few schools teach civics or ethics anymore, and apparently few school teachers or administrators know what these terms mean. I have not heard much in the way of outrage by any other schools regarding this practice, which began with monitoring stolen goods and appears to have deteriorated into out-and-out spying and surveillance for fun. What does this tell you about American school systems? They’re top heavy with administration and out of touch with reality. No wonder parents want to home-school.
I honestly do not believe that at any point in the surveillance program did the school snoops think they were doing anything wrong or unethical. This is the real problem here. In fact I’m sure some of the folks being rounded up are actually stunned by this investigation. “But we didn’t know!”
I’m not sure how anyone can come to the conclusion that you can just turn on computer cameras inside private residences Orwellian-style, just to see what’s going on out of curiosity. This is the kind of thinking you might have as a goofy 12-year-old before you learn about legality, and ethics. But these are adults with serious responsibilities. And I think it is the tip of a very big iceberg—one that no one is talking about.
Does anyone seriously believe this is an isolated incident? If you watch TV cop dramas this sort of thing is out-and-out promoted as the way to catch the bad guys. And in the USA lately, the entire public is seen as a potential bad guy, no matter the reality or likelihood. Everyone is a suspect getting on an airplane. Everyone is a suspect walking down the street. And public cameras are everywhere.
So it is not a leap of faith to just spy on everyone; after all, someone is probably doing something wrong, and maybe we can catch them this way. And as expected, someone was doing something wrong: the person surreptitiously viewing the cameras.
I can assure you other schools around the country are erasing their 56,000 photos ASAP as this case unfolds. I can assure you that whatever snooping program was used by the school district wasn’t sold to just one customer. It surely wasn’t coded in-house. Hopefully some irked supervisors will emerge and blow the whistle on other offenders.
Unless we want to just give up on freedoms and liberties in this country, this sort of Big Brother-is-watching-you nonsense has got to stop. If any leniency is shown toward the school district—any whatsoever— then the wrong message will be sent. The prosecutors have to throw the book at these jokers. For starters, a school is supposed to exemplify good, not evil. Illegal activity cannot be tolerated within the American school structure.
Meanwhile, my advice to people using loaned computers like this is to always assume there is some sort of spyware planted. If you cannot find a way to ferret it out, at least tape over the camera and the microphone hole of these machines, and don’t use it for any sort of computerto- computer chatting. Just assume you’re being watched and heard. Because you probably are.