Choose your future: free software, or masking tape on your kid's webcam.
The case of administrators in the Lower Merion School District (LMSD) spying on students through mandatory, school-provided laptops struck a chord with bloggers (Boing Boing, Gizmodo) and traditional news outlets (NPR, Reuters). The most in-depth source on this so far has been Stryde's investigation. We have two reactions (one emotional and one more circumspect) and a plan to fight this trend, for which we'll need your help.
Our first reaction--the emotional one--is to just marvel at how bad this is. How in the world did we get here? From a former student's comment on Digg:
"As a recent graduate of Harriton, I thought I could shed some light on the situation. These laptops were 2.0ghz 2gb Macbooks issued out to all the students for the entire year to do whatever they wanted and this was the 2nd year of the program. The webcam couldn't be disabled due to tough security settings. Occasionally we would notice that the green light was on from time to time but we just figured that it was glitching out as some macbooks do sometimes. *Some few covered it up with tape and post its because they thought the IT guys were watching them. I always thought they were crazy and that the district, one of the more respectable ones within the state, would never pull some shit like this. I guess I was wrong*" (emphasis ours).
High school students start covering their webcams with tape because they can't trust their computers. And then it turns out that what seemed like paranoia to some was completely well-founded.
Our second reaction--the more circumspect one--is that the real scandal here is the mandatory imposition of computers that students don't control. This may not be as lurid a violation of freedom as a remote-activated webcam in a teenager's bedroom, but it is the most central. Once people use computers they don't completely control, that provides both a technical basis and a social/political slippery slope for sleazy sysadmins leering at your kids--or any other violation you can imagine.
And to be completely clear, when we say "computers they don't control" we aren't just talking about computers with DRM, backdoors, and monitoring software. Any computer running Windows, Mac OS X, Flash, or any proprietary software is a computer that you don't control. This includes not just laptops and desktops, but also things like a Kindle, an iPhone, or an iPad.
When the software on your computer is proprietary, then you can't know whether the light is coming on because of a glitch or because the camera is actually running. You can't tell if your hard drive is spinning because you're using it, or because someone else is using it. Only free software gives you the freedom to find the answers to these questions.
So what future will we as a society choose? A future based on free software, or one where high school students have to cover their webcams with tape?
If you're with us, here's the plan. We want to create a listing of all school systems that provide every student with a laptop. Then we want to know what software the laptops run, if students are prohibited from using their own computers running free software, and if the provided laptops have any additionally nasty characteristics (beyond simply including proprietary software) like locked out features or remote monitoring software.
We'll be organizing around this wiki page. Once we get enough data (but we need your help to do this!) we'll start running campaigns to get the different school districts to change their policy to promote (or at least allow) software freedom.
Spying laptops remind us of the young adult sci-fi Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, which explores the idea of the panopticon high school (and how one might fight it) in an exciting and very readable way. And Cory Doctorow just ran a great guest editorial from a recent high school student on his blog BoingBoing: Seen Not Heard. The use of technology to limit and violate students' freedoms is widespread and growing, partly because what goes on in high schools is extremely opaque to anybody not in them.
Help us reveal where abuses are happening, and work to undo them.