The flap over Lower Merion, Pa., school officials allegedly spying on students through Webcams on school-supplied MacBooks raises an interesting and important question: Just what expectation of privacy do students have when using school-owned computers? The likeliest answer is not much.
Using cameras to observe students unawares is definitely unethical and probably illegal, though we may have to wait for a court to decide that. School officials say that the capability, now disabled, was only used to track lost or stolen laptops.Taking their claim at face value, there’s still a huge difference between what is permitted and what is possible, and the students using these computers need to be aware of both.
The situation is not as simple as the rights of employees and employers with respect to work computers. In general, if an employer who owns a computer has a legal right to anything put on it by an employee. The rules governing relations between schools and students is a lot murkier than employment law, but in general students should not count on much protection of the privacy of anything stored on a school-owned computer.
But regardless of what the law or school policies say, students have to be aware that as a practical matter, the school is going to have access to anything on the computer. School IT administrators should be assumed to have administrator-level access to every computer and it’s also only safe to assume that they have enabled remote access as well. They’ll also be able to see a log of every Web site visited.
What about the contents of login protected Web sites, such as a Gmail account or a Facebook page? Unless the school has installed password-snooping software, which would be legally dicey, administrators would not be able to log into student accounts. But for a variety of reasons, it’s not safe to assume that they would not be able to see Web pages viewed by students.
I believe that schools have a responsibility to be absolutely clear, in a way that Lower Merion officials were not, about what the capabilities they have for monitoring student use of computers (including classroom and computer lab machines) and what are the policies governing administrators’ use of monitoring. And students should realize that whatever restrictions are put on monitoring, they can easily be circumvented, technically if not legally.
So here’s a legal puzzler for any constitutional lawyers out there: A student has a school-provided laptop in his bedroom. An administrator viewing photos sees the student smoking a bong. And let’s assume this in an antediluvian jurisdiction where marijuana possession is still a felony. Can the school turn photos or video over to the police? Could they ever pass Fourth Amendment muster as evidence. Or to pick a nastier example, what if the camera captures two students having sex in a situation that might be statutory rape?