With the Smart Schools Bond Act on the horizon, some NY districts have already embraced the future by supplying students with laptops and tablets. In general, most if not all of these school devices come pre-equipped with custom education software, wifi capability, a video camera and a microphone. Before issuing a device to a student, a school will send the parents an extensive contract to sign in order to accept the device. These contracts outline the responsibilities for damage, rules of use and the main focus of this article, the privacy that can be expected.
No Expectation of Privacy
There can be, and there is no expectation of privacy with respect to a student’s use of a District provided Learnpad. The District retains the right to review, monitor, and retain information relating to a students use of a Learnpad at anytime and for any reason, including to assure compliance with applicable laws, rules and regulations, as well as compliance with the District’s acceptable use policy. The includes accessing and reviewing current use, stored information, logs of incoming and outgoing information, communications using Learnpad, and all of it’s content. — Original scan provided by a Stop Common Core Facebook group member and placed into text by whydad.net
In Pennsylvania, a district was caught with pictures of at least one student at home via the district laptops. The pictures were discovered after the district attempted to use them as evidence to take discipline actions against the student. In Australia, it was reported that government issued laptops contained a “tutor” software that was recording screen shots based on a keyword list for later review. Apparently this software was monitoring everything including “private” skype conversations. In each case the same 24/7 privacy problem arose:
“Superintendent Christopher McGinley boasts of the laptop program on the districts’ site, saying that it “ensures that all students have 24/7 access to school-based resources.” But administrators never told students or their families that district officials had “24/7 access” into their homes at the same time, according to the lawsuit.”
When discussing the privacy rules in Australia: “The word ‘all’ would imply the information may be monitored on a seven-day a week, 24-hours a day basis,” the EQ email said.
In a nutshell, the privacy contracts or policies for these devices may or may not say you have no expectation of privacy in your home and the school districts make little if any effort to point this out. To make matters worse, we searched for basic tips to protect your privacy with school supplied devices and failed to find any district websites that offered parental advice. To put this in no uncertain terms, a school provided laptop or tablet is a recording device that may be recording at any moment.
Now that you are aware of what can happen, setting out clear ground rules and taking preventative steps for invasive school technology and perhaps nefarious school employees is a must. The suggestions below assume that even though you may be able to disable the camera and microphone in the device settings, there is always an administrator access capability in the background that school employees can use to remotely to turn them on.
#1 Turn the computer off when not in use or being charged
#2 To disable the camera(s), locate the lens and place a piece of electrical tape over it.
#3 The microphone is generally a small hole somewhere on the case. Place tape over it to reduce/remove the ability to “hear” sound. To test the effectiveness, use the installed call software and place a call to someone you know.
#4 Always use a wireless connection and never use a home Ethernet connection (without securing your network).
#5 Tell your student that without the tape, he or she should always assume that the camera and mic are recording no matter where they are… including the classroom.
#6 Never use the the tablet or laptop for anything other than school work as it may be taking screen shots for later retrieval.
#7 If the camera and mic are needed, remove the tape or labels and use in a quiet room with a blank wall behind the user. (Give the school no information about the contents or people in your home)
These simple steps will go a long way to diminish or prevent privacy invasions on school issued devices. There is another step that must be taken.
For the school supplied devices to work properly at home, a parent will need to supply internet access so that a student can access websites and information. As mentioned before, do not plug the device into your Ethernet outlet as that can provide the school district access to your network and possibly other devices in your home… parents should provide a specific kind of wifi access for school devices. To that end, most internet providers supply routers that include wireless access and something called “guest access”.
The guest access feature allows you to provide internet access to others without giving them a direct pathway to your home network. To put it mildly, it is none of the school districts business (or a guests business) to see that you have an xbox, other tablets and devices, an expensive 3d printer, a home security interface or a computer with open admin privileges.
Below are two articles describing how to setup guest access on your router in easy to understand language. If you can’t seem to get it done, call your internet provider and they may do it for you or walk you through the process. If there is a cost for “upgrading”, consider buying your own wireless router as it is always cheaper.
PC Mag – 10 Ways to Set Up Your Wi-Fi for Holiday Guests (Ignore the holiday portion of the title, the methods work year-round)
How-To Geek – How to enable guest access
Technology in education is a valuable tool and a necessary evil. As NY schools acquire more educational devices and force parents to sign away their privacy, a parents best ally is prevention. Feel free to comment below if we have missed something obvious.