Raising alarm about the lack of privacy for students and
their families, the ACLU of Rhode Island today released a
report showing that many school districts in the state give
themselves the right to remotely spy on students through the use of
school-loaned laptop computers. Under so-called “1 to 1” programs, in which a
majority of school districts in the state participate, a private vendor
provides free laptops or tablet computers for the school year that students can
use at home. With this program, however, the ACLU found, students and their
families are often required to surrender basic privacy rights.
The ACLU report, entitled “High School
Non-Confidential: How School-Loaned Computers May be Peering into Your Home,”
highlights that, in many districts, policies allow school officials to remotely
access the student laptops at home – including the computer’s webcam and
microphone - at any time, and for any reason.
The ACLU’s privacy concerns are not hypothetical, as the
report highlights the widely publicized case some years ago involving a
Pennsylvania school district that surreptitiously took more than 50,000
screenshots of students via remote access to the webcams of their school-loaned
laptops. Given this and other important issues, the report concludes that RI
state legislators should adopt a standard policy to protect the privacy of
students and their families.
The 12-page ACLU report looks specifically at the policies
of the 22 local school districts where laptops are provided to students for
home use during the school year. In addition to raising concerns about the
authority school officials give themselves to remotely access the laptop’s
webcam and microphone, the report identified several other related troubling
In loaning students the laptop computers or Chromebooks to
use at home, school districts require students and parents to acknowledge they
have no expectation of privacy whatsoever regarding the device at any time –
even if students are allowed to use it for non-school reasons and parents are
encouraged to use it too.
Only a handful of school districts affirm that they will not
remotely operate the computers’ camera or audio recording mechanisms.
Most school district policies allow school officials to
remotely access and or search the content of the devices at any time –
including files, web history and other information – in the absence of any
suspicion of misconduct.
The majority of policies also allow school administrators
and teachers to physically inspect the devices at any time and for any reason.
“School officials simply should not have the right to use a
computer lending program as an excuse to spy on families in the privacy of
their own homes,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of RI, “but
that is precisely what their policies allow.” Added ACLU of RI policy associate
Marcela Betancur, “In surveying the school districts for this report, I was
shocked to see their complete lack of respect for student and parents’ privacy
rights. In order to protect those rights, this report makes clear that the
state needs to adopt uniform standards for school districts who participate in
1 to 1 programs.”
The report notes that while the 1 to 1 programs are quite
beneficial, “too many schools require students – and their parents – to give up
any rights to privacy to participate in the program.” Also noteworthy is the
report’s finding that only six RI school districts accommodate poorer families
by providing free or reduced insurance coverage for the devices.
The report lays out several policy recommendations,
including restricting remote access to the content of the devices, banning
remote activation of the computers’ webcam or microphones, implementing
standards for searches that are based on reasonable suspicion of misconduct,
and providing low- or no-cost insurance coverage for needy families.