Response: Thoughts on the Lower Merion School District

I received the following email:

Are you of the flap in our area – Lower Merion Pa – that has international attention. It seems that the schoolboard bought software that can control the laptop camera to track lost or stolen computers. Someone got the bright idea that they could spy on a kid suspected of drug use. Fourth amendment issues aside this is spyware. It seems a great opportunity to alert the public of how likely things like this may well be on their computers. You might have the needed “Bull Pulpit.”

I’ve been silent on this issue for awhile. Here’s my email reply to the inquiry:

It’s a very difficult case. When does the public sphere end and the private one begin? Would you be against turning on the camera/mic if it occurred only on school grounds? Could asset tracking software constitute a breach of privacy even if it does not turn on the camera and microphone? What about administrators who need to update the machine with the latest patches, software versions, etc?

I admit that I do not have the answers to these questions and how to proceed. Intuitively I think that software that remotely turns on the camera and mic should categorically be denied on public/school computers. Although laptops will need some type of asset tracking (perhaps installed in the bios at the hardware level) to prevent theft of devices and illegal resales of hardware. If the BIOS tracking was disclosed and explained to the laptop recipient then I think it would be OK. Updating software remotely may give too much access by administrators who could then install additional “spyware”. How to proceed with such laptop maintenance is still unclear to me.