US school spies on kids at school… and at home

There’s a really disturbing story on Boingboing concerning a US school in a wealthy suburb that issued laptops to students whose webcams could be covertly switched on by school administrators, wherever the kids were. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the school saw nothing wrong in using these cameras to spy on kids at home, and even issuing a disciplinary notice to one child who was apparently deemed to be guilty of ‘improper behaviour.’ Not surprisingly the school is now subject to a class action lawsuit.

School surveillance is a particularly under-studied issue, although recently, there has been the excellent new book edited by Torin Monahan and there will be a double issue of Surveillance & Society on surveillance and children coming out in March / April. It seems that because children either do not have adult rights (or their rights are not seen as important in the same way), states, school authorities and individual Heads and Administrators have all taken the opportunity to experiment with ever more  intrusive surveillance measures. Many of these were once justified with reference to concerns over truancy and attendance, or security and violence (the metal detectors in many urban US high schools, for example), and then there was health (used to justify the automated monitoring of what kids ate at meal times). But increasingly more petty and market-based issues have emerged: corporate data-collection and compliance with minor rules and regulations. All seemingly without any regard for the developing sense of autonomy, privacy or sociality of children.

Of course, the increasing use of surveillance in schools also serves an educative function in a surveillance society: essentially it indoctrinates children as to what is the ‘new normal’, what should be their expectations of privacy (and other rights) in a world increasingly organised on the principles of surveillance. However it’s good to see the lawsuit in this case and that some things still have the power to raise people from their apathy. But this is a school in a wealthy area with educated parents who understand and have access to the law – what would be the outcome in a school in a marginalized area?

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

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