Recently I've been much more attuned to news story regarding technology in schools. The big one this week involved a suburban Philadelphia school district accused of spying on students through the webcam on school-issued laptops.
Ironically, I happened to be in Philly when this story came out. Perhaps even more ironically I happened to be in a rival suburban Philadelphia high school, hanging out with a lot of opinionated educators and lawyers (otherwise known as debate people). Needless to say, the story was popular topic of conversation in the judges lounge.
One of those engaged in the discussion was a former D.C. prosecutor. He railed against the privacy issues and clear violation of the 4th amendment rights. Many have equated the spying to a 1984-esque scenario. Is big brother watching over the students' shoulders? In fact, the student in question was eating a Mike-and-Ike, a harmless piece of candy that was mistaken for drugs on the computer webcam.
While I believe that the Lower Merion School district was clearly wrong in their actions, it does bring important questions to the forefront. As our lives become more integrated with technology the barriers between school and private life seem to blur. What rights do schools (or companies for that matter) have regarding their electronics issued to students and workers?
The privacy and security issues raise a host of questions regarding implications for child pornography. Many students have had the laptops open in their rooms and are enraged that they could have been spied upon. The blogosphere is reacting strongly. Americans are outraged.
But I can't help wondering how this news would have been received in other parts of the world. For instance, I've heard weird stories from people who've traveled to China. One businessman stayed in a hotel and happened to remark to his traveling partner that he was cold. Shortly thereafter he heard a knock on the door - it was a concierge with blankets.
People that work for the state department have said they are told to expect to be spied upon when in China. The social scientist in me is fascinated by this.
Privacy is truly an entrenched American value. The abridgment of that makes you a pariah in our society. And frankly, I'm thankful. I hope that our technological abilities never outpace our commitment to preserving the underpinnings of democracy.