10 Things School Webcam Spying Allegations Teach Us About Privacy

By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2010-02-22

10 Things School Webcam Spying Allegations Teach Us About Privacy

When news broke recently that the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania had the ability to monitor student computers and allegedly accused a student of engaging in "improper behavior in the home," several critics spoke out against the way the school district handled the situation.

In a lawsuit, a student's family alleged that students didn't know the Webcams in their computers, which were issued by the district, could be remotely monitored. The suit contends that students' privacy was violated.

Some say tracking software isn't a problem in and of itself. But when that software is used to monitor what a person is doing through a Webcam, as this suit claims, security and privacy watchdogs take offense. For good reason.

It's understandable that a school would want to know where its computers are at any time. But when allegations are made that a school was "spying" on students, it's a different story altogether. And it teaches us some hard lessons about Web privacy.

Let's take a look at some of those lessons.

1. No one can be trusted

As much as we might like to believe that there are places on the Web where our personal privacy is truly intact, it isn't. Whether the government wants to see what's being said or co-workers are looking over our shoulders on the job, there is always someone out there trying to determine what others are up to on the Web. Today, Web privacy is practically nonexistent.

2. It's too easy

Unfortunately, it's too easy for personal privacy to be violated. Enterprise computers filled with monitoring applications that know every single thing an employee is doing on a computer each day are commonplace. Personal computers can quite easily be loaded with software that can monitor others. Knowing what someone else is doing has never been easier. And the worst part is, there are no signs of that changing any time soon.

3. It can only go so far

At the same time, it's important to remember that personal privacy can only go so far. Companies have every right to know what an employee is doing on a computer if those actions could cause the organization legal harm. Public computers or machines that were authorized for use by an organization add a whole new twist to monitoring and personal privacy. Simply put, users can hope to maintain privacy at all times, but based on the state of security today, such a desire will likely never be reality.

4. Anonymity is leaving the building

The Internet was once a bastion of anonymity. The idea behind user names dates back to the early days of the Web when users coveted anonymity above all else. In recent years, that desire for anonymity has eroded as social networks have reached unprecedented popularity. More and more people are going to the Web with their full names in plain view. Others are using geolocation services to tell friends where they are at all times. It raises a question: How can we expect personal privacy if we're so willing to give out our personal information at any time?

Holding the Line Against the Erosion of Privacy

5. Everyone has a vested interest

Every Web user has a vested interest in seeing personal privacy preserved. If people are being monitored in the privacy of their homes, tracking has gone a little bit further than it should. Simply ignoring that issue wouldn't do anyone any good and it would likely embolden other organizations to engage in the same practice. If personal privacy is truly what Web users desire, they need to stand up for it wherever possible.

6. We need to be more astute

When sitting on the couch at home or working at the office, most folks believe that no one is watching what they're doing. It's a faulty belief that has gotten more than one person in trouble. There are definite signs of being monitored while using the Web. Users need to be more aware of those signs and realize that when they're online, it's not always private.

7. Education is key

In order to become more astute, more folks need to be educated on issues surrounding privacy. They need to know what's at stake if personal privacy is violated on the Internet. They also need to know just how easy it is for someone to spy on them without their knowledge. Armed with that basic information, users can more readily prepare for privacy violations. The Internet is no longer a place where few problems can arise. It's now the home of major security outbreaks. Users need to be aware of that.

8. It's not getting any better

As much as some folks might want their personal privacy preserved, it's becoming more and more obvious that the industry is moving in another direction. Privacy is being eroded on several fronts. Part of that is due to a general lack of user understanding. But it's also due to the current climate in the tech industry. More security outbreaks are affecting companies and organizations. Sensitive data is being stolen. Giving users too much privacy could, some say, limit the ability to fend off attacks. Privacy is now a pawn in the security world's fight against malicious hackers.

9. Privacy is subjective

Personal privacy is a subjective term that is too easily thrown around without a clear definition of what violates it and what doesn't. A violation to one person might not be a violation to another. That subjectivity only confuses the issue of how to handle personal privacy on the Web.

10. It can be violated anywhere

Privacy issues affect Web users around the globe both at work and at home. These issues have seeped into every facet of Web life. And they're becoming more invasive by the day. It's incumbent upon all Web users to recognize that and be prepared if and when they're affected. The more connected we become, the more our personal privacy is at risk. We can't forget that.

Rocket Fuel