By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
Educators are always looking for new ways to connect to students and to take advantage of the latest technologies to enhance the learning experience.  For example, many public school districts across the country, including Henrico County in Virginia, issue laptops or iPods to students.  Sometimes, however, the technology gets ahead of educators, who fail to create policies appropriate for the equipment they have distributed.  And when that happens, there are usually unforeseen—and undesirable – consequences.
Case in point: a Pennsylvania school district is being sued for spying on students by remotely activating the webcams on laptops it issued to them (see Robbins et al v. Lower Merion School District).  The school district argues that its policy is to only activate the cameras to investigate lost or stolen laptops.  However, according to the lawsuit, the school officials spied on the student and his family because they were concerned about the student’s safety.
Regardless of how this case turns out, this situation has created a buzz among educators, law enforcement, and privacy advocates alike.  School districts are re-examining their laptop programs and revisiting their security and privacy policies. In doing so, some educators  have been surprised to learn that they have the capability to remotely access students’ computers.
With remotely controlled laptop cameras, school administrators have the ability to spy on students outside of schools.  Eventually someone will split the legal hairs necessary to get to the bottom of this issue, but it is clear to the ACLU that the guiding principles should be those used for wiretaps.  The public school is a government entity and the student is a citizen in the privacy of his or her own home.  The only circumstance under which the cameras should be turned on is when there is probable cause to believe that a criminal act is occurring and a warrant is obtained consistent with the Fourth Amendment.
Of course, it is never this simple with new technologies in new situations.  What about when the laptop is reported as stolen?  Does the thief have Fourth Amendment rights, or should the school be able to turn on the cameras immediately without obtaining a warrant?   What if schools get smart and ask students and parents who receive the laptops to waive their constitutional rights, giving schools the authority to turn on cameras not only when they are stolen but when they have reason to believe the student’s well-being is imperiled.  Most students and parents would probably automatically sign such a waiver without thinking about it.
With technology rapidly advancing, privacy and security guidelines are constantly playing catch up to keep pace with all the new predicaments that arise.  The scenario in Pennsylvania serves as a clarion call for educators to take heed while considering the use of new technologies to engage students and enhance the educational experience.  This is likely to be just the beginning of far more complicated relationships between public school officials, parents, students and the technologies that increasingly bind them together.  Technology can be a great asset, but it must always be accompanied by carefully crafted policies that explore every potential consequence to make sure that students’ constitutional rights are protected.   To do otherwise is to invite the Pennsylvania scenario to play itself out over and over again.