High School Trojan Horse (2010 Mar)

by Barry A. Liebling

If you went to high school you know that what you learn relates only partly to the classes you take. There are other opportunities beyond the classroom for gaining important insights into how the world works and how to make smart choices.

Recently the parents of a high school student in Ardmore, Pennsylvania sued the school district on behalf of their son – accusing the district of illegally spying on students by using iSight webcams in MacBook laptops. The school district issues the MacBooks to high school students who use the devices both at school and at home. The student was confronted by a school official who accused him of selling drugs and taking pills. The evidence for misbehavior was photographs taken at his home by the laptop triggered by a remote access program. The student denies the charges and insists the photographs show him eating candy in his own room.

There are at least five lessons to be learned from this incident.

First, we live in a world where privacy is hard to come by and has costs. As soon as you leave your home people and cameras are watching you. Go to a bank, a restaurant, a convenience store, or a mall and your image is sure to be video recorded. If you want to be unobserved, it is up to you to find a private place. Privacy is not the default.

Second, your home is supposed to be a private place. That is because you own it or pay rent for it and own the property within it. No person has the right to invade your space, and even the government must respect your sovereignty – providing you refrain from violating anyone else’s rights. However, if you deliberately permit an invader to enter your home all bets are off. It is hard to predict what the encroacher will do.

Third, everything has its price, nothing is free. When the school district – the government – issues a student a “free” – or steeply discounted – laptop the student does not own the laptop. There are always conditions – sometimes conditions you do not anticipate. The laptop belongs to the school district which will take steps to protect its property. Apparently the remote access program was installed so the school district could recover stolen computers by snapping pictures of a thief in action. Students were not informed because doing so would have tipped the district’s hand to would-be robbers. This qualifies the laptop as a Trojan Horse – a “gift” with the hidden potential of being used by the donor against the recipient.

Note well, if the student or his parents had bought a laptop with their own money there would be no Trojan Horse. The school district would be in no position to install stealth software. Note also, that as soon as the district begins issuing laptops it has a responsibility to protect its loaned property. If laptops started to disappear the bureaucrats at the school district would be called on the carpet to explain why they did not take anti-theft precautions.

Fourth, public school bureaucrats use whatever tools are available to pursue their interests – which may or may not be your interests. The original purpose of the surveillance program was to recover stolen laptops. But school district officials have a long list of objectives – among them to supervise and direct the lives of their students. Someone in the district decided that taking pictures would be a good way to apprehend mischievous behavior. While the school official who confronted the student proclaims she did not take or authorize the spying, she had no trouble using the photographs when she acquired them. The school district default is to intervene whenever possible.

Fifth, the bottom line lesson of the incident is obvious – beware of geeks bearing gifts. Accepting a free computer from your public school is likely to result in consequences that are not what you want. Think long and hard before you agree to be the recipient of a bureaucrat’s generosity.

And here is a pop quiz for extra credit. Deep down, is this story really about high school, laptops, and district officials? Can it be generalized to other gifts the government might offer you? Can you detect a pattern?

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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