Big Brother Gets Bolder: Security Software on Laptops Goes off School Grounds and into Students' and Teachers' Homes

Article excerpt

Web sites like those described to the left are likely off limits for most students in districts that have one-to-one laptop initiatives allowing students to take the computers home. And while administrators and parents aim to protect students from downloading naked pictures, chatting on Web sites with potential predators, and looking for non-educational material, some debate has erupted over the fine line of student privacy and squashing student rights to information--whether it be in libraries or on the World Wide Web.

In an age where more school districts are reviewing plans or have one-to-one laptop initiatives for their students, administrators are turning to high-tech answers to keep track of how students use these machines--even when they are not in class and not on school grounds.

Some companies offer their own "blacklist" of no-no Web sites to ensure students are sticking to education when using the laptops off school grounds, and even keep track of tech-savvy and tireless students that try to override the system and change grades, for example. Other companies have a system that can track if a laptop is stolen or lost and even remotely eliminate sensitive information on the laptop.

So, this sounds a lot like Big Brother--once again. "It is," admits Lightspeed CEO Joel Heinrichs. "Schools are in charge of children in lieu of the parents while they are gone. There's an obligation that school resources are being used appropriately. And to protect children from outside dangers and themselves."

But Nancy Willard, executive director of Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, disagrees, saying districts should be concerned with safe and responsible use issues. "The degree of reliance districts place on filtering systems to seek to control Internet use is unacceptable," says Willard, also author of Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats and Distress. "Students can easily bypass these systems to access social networking sites. Students generally are provided with e-mail capabilities and may be misusing the e-mail for cyberbullying. Filtering systems are ineffective in addressing these concerns."

But she notes that she doesn't think these programs can never be effective. "We need significantly greater emphasis on professional and curriculum development and significantly improved methods for Internet use management to ensure that they are effective."

Willard adds that companies which set up these blocked sites might have other agendas. "No one is watching the blockers," she adds. "And we don't know what they're blocking," such as sites that could help students answer questions they have about a sensitive topic.

But it's not only students getting all the attention. Teachers and staff are getting their own share of fixation from software programs. Having potential pornographic Web sites downloaded on laptops or opening viruses at home, teachers can bring that into the school's network when they come back to school. And more districts will spend the money now to avoid or stop it.

Big Bro Goes Off Campus

California is a big state. No one knows that better than Philip Scrivano, who at one time traveled around the state to repair and fix computer and laptop programs when they were compromised. Scrivano, IT analyst for California's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, says that changed when they installed Light-speed Systems' Total Traffic Control v6.0 with a security agent, or desktop content filter, just a few months ago. FCAT's mission is to help the state's local educational agencies with fiscal advice, management assistance, training and other related school business services. Scrivano is based in the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office under contract with the state Department of Education and the governor's office.

Scrivano's job is to keep track of employees' computer work in the field. …