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In Rhode Island, Some Schools Think They Have the Right to Spy on Students With School Laptops

Kid laptop
Kid laptop
Marcela Betancur,
Policy Associate,
ACLU of Rhode Island
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June 15, 2017

Students today have a lot to worry about: passing that pesky biology class, getting into college, and mastering the perfect Snapchat filter, to name just a few examples. However, there is one concerning matter that many of them are not aware they should be worried about: their school spying on them while using their school-loaned laptop.

Most Rhode Island school districts participate in “1-1” programs — in which third parties provide free laptop devices to students for the school year. While that should be a good thing, the details are a bit more complicated. We recently found out that most of the state’s participating schools give themselves the ability to remotely spy on their students through these loaned devices.

We published our findings early this month in a report titled “High School Non-Confidential: How School-Loaned Computers May Be Peering Into Your Home.” The report found that more than 60 percent of Rhode Island school districts today participate in the 1-1 program. It also discovered that a majority of those districts allow school officials or administrators to remotely access the device — while a student is at home, without their knowledge, and without any suspicion of misconduct. We know from an outrageous Pennsylvania case, in which school administrators were found to have activated webcams to spy on students in their homes, that this obvious privacy concern is not hypothetical. Yet only six districts specifically stated in their policies that they would not remotely access the webcams or microphones of devices distributed through the programs.

Consider how creepy it is for any school official to be able to remotely and secretly peer over your shoulder while you’re in the safety of your home. And webcams aren’t the extent of the threat. Without proper policies, schools can also access the keystroke and browsing histories of students participating in the programs. George Orwell’s “1984” is standard required reading in schools. Administrators would do well to revisit it.

We also found that many schools equate the blanket access to computers that their policies allow to their right to inspect student lockers. This is a problematic analogy because lockers are actually in school at all times. School-loaned devices are designed for portability — and students are encouraged to use them at home. In addition to the obvious Fourth Amendment implications of such a search, there are First Amendment concerns as well. Unlike a locker, a search of a computer can reveal tons of documents, files, messages, social media activity, and other classic elements of “speech.” We’ve also seen that invasions of privacy chill free speech and free association — both critical to development and effective learning.

We’re not against school-loaned devices, but the policies that govern these programs need some work when it comes to civil liberties. In denying students their right to privacy, we are limiting their learning and teaching them that they are all suspects in the eyes of authority. Additionally, it shouldn’t be the case that wealthier students who can afford to use their own devices get to keep their privacy, while other students are forced to take the device and surrender their privacy — or keep their privacy, turn down the device, and hurt their education. No one’s privacy should be conditioned on their socioeconomic status.

There are ways to fix this. The ACLU has written a model bill that any state can adapt to protect its students. In Rhode Island, a bill that largely mirrors the model bill has been introduced in the state legislature. It would limit when an administrator or third party can remotely access devices to instances where there is reasonable belief that misconduct, as spelled out in school policies, took place, or if a warrant is present.

No child should have to trade away privacy in exchange for access to cutting-edge technology. Schools should be taking the lead in protecting their students

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