When one receives access to a computer system within the Department of Defense, Federal government or most large corporations, a warning banner is displayed at login telling the user that they essentially have no expectation of privacy, for what they do on that system.
This goes for desktops and laptops.Therefore none of us who see that banner at each login should be surprised if what we do on the computer is being watched or logged.
In fact, anytime a system is made available by an authority, and that authority retains ownership, a reasonable person would not expect the work they do on that system to be private. Or would they?
In the Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, privacy of computer use takes a new twist.
Now, the school district is being sued by a second family who found their student’s school computer was taking pictures of him and the family, via the built-in webcam.
Nearly 1000 photos and screen shots were taken through the webcam over a period of nearly three months. Previously, the school district was sued for the same activity on February 16 of this year.
At that time, according to an article here:
“The district has acknowledged that more than 58,000 photos and screen shots were captured from students' computers while the remote-monitoring policy was in place. More than half the images, the district has said, resulted from technicians' forgetting to turn off monitoring software after computers were recovered.”
An important point is that the security software that activates the camera is not “controlled” by an admin who is viewing snapshots in real-time. Nor is this a video capture capability.
Is this case gross violation of privacy, or a case of misplaced expectations? This case could have both of these components.
I wonder though, how far the privacy claim will go, given the fact that the computers are owned by the school system and loaned to the student. Do expectation of privacy rules differ from Government and corporate rules simply because students are involved?
If the students only used their school-supplied laptops with webcams for school work and nothing else, the likelihood of capturing more than 58,000 images across the affected population would be slim.
The acceptable use policy for students, found here, states that files stored on school assets are not private and ”Network security is designed to allow access to certain areas only by designated users; however, the network administrator may review files and communications to maintain system integrity and ensure that students are using the system responsibly.”
From the looks of it, as a non-lawyer of course, giving out laptops with cameras activated was shortsighted. The admins at the school should have found a way to disable them.
If the students, or parents, had been savvier to put tape over the camera when it’s not in use, this issue would not have been an issue. But is the school district guilty of a privacy violation versus having an immature security program? I think not.