10 Things School Webcam Spying Allegations Teach Us About Privacy

News Analysis: With the news that a Pennsylvania school district is being accused of monitoring students at home, the issue of personal privacy is back in the limelight. It's clear that the more time we spend online with our computers the more our sense of privacy can be violated, especially if misguided individuals or organizations misuse technology that was designed to help us or protect us. We take a look at 10 lessons that we can learn from the case.

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?

Don Reisinger

Don Reisinger

Don Reisinger is a longtime freelance contributor to several technology and business publications. Over his career, Don has written about everything from geek-friendly gadgetry to issues of privacy...