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The All Seeing Eye (or the Camera in your Computer)

One school district in Pennsylvania is using Macbook cameras for a whole new purpose. Parents in this district believe that schools periodically turn on the cameras to monitor the student and their usage of the county issued computer. Parents are outraged and have asked a federal judge to ban the practice.

The school district insists that the technology is only turned on if a laptop is lost or stolen, to give more clues to the identity of the thief or physical location.

On Friday, parents of a 16-year old student at Harriton High School submitted a motion to U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois for a restraining order against the remote activation of the webcam program. The motion also requested that the school district be blocked from recalling the laptops from students.

“There can be no assurances that the School District will disable the use of the remote webcam or, once deactivated, make an internal decision to reactive the webcam,” the motion argued.

Also in the motion, the Robbins labeled the program as “peeping tom technology” claiming the program was implemented other than the times outlined by the county.

Prior to the motion made by the Robbins, their son was accused by the assistant principle of taking and selling drugs, using images of the student from the Macbook camera. The student claims he was captured eating candy.

“[Our student] was at home using a school issued laptop that was neither reported lost nor stolen when his image was captured by Defendants without his or his parents’ permission and while he was at home,” the motion said. Federal officials have also put more attention into their investigation of Lower Merion School District in PA for similar reasons.

Parents in both districts were not made aware of the security features used in the computers. The county does regret the lack of notification, but insists that the security features are manditory.

These recent security cases bring up fundamental technology privacy issues. Laptops, used by students at home and at school, no matter their location, are county property.  The necessity of security to protect the county property invades into personal privacy. Our expectations is that computers and the internet is personal and when we want, private.

Programs such as Google Buzz have also been raising security questions. Google Buzz integrates your email contract list into it a social networking feature. Buzz also uses automatic sharing, which is causing a majority of the privacy issues.

According to Sean Sullivan from F-Secure, “Sharing is tomorrow’s search and the players are beginning to battle it out. Your privacy is at stake, if you let it be. It’s a trade off folks. You don’t get to use free services and expect to get absolute privacy. Either you offer up some of your information for enhanced services, or you don’t.”

“If you really need privacy, use something else besides Gmail (and other free web based solutions). Some folks actually pay for their e-mail services, you can get something more secure for something like $20 a year, and that’s cheap when you think about it,” said Sean. Likewise with the county issued computers.

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