To Spy or Not to Spy Information Ethics Case By Heather Healy, Carla Heideman, Stephenie Heinz, Lora Jones, Margaret Kriwiel, Laura McDaniel March 3, 2010 At the start of the 2009-2010 school year, the Carleton School District in suburbanPhiladelphia issued a laptop computer to each high school student. To receive the computer, eachstudent and his or her legal guardians were required to sign a computer use agreement thatprohibits students from using the computer in any inappropriate or illegal ways at any timewhether the student is at school or at any other location. As part of the program, 15-year oldSpencer Johnson received one of the school-issued laptops, and he and his parents signed thecomputer use agreement. One day in February, Spencer and several classmates are in the school library doingresearch for an English report. The students are acting a bit raucous and disturbing other studentsin the library. Wanting to maintain order and help get Spencer and the other students back ontrack, Mr. Anderson, the school librarian, approaches the table where the students are working tosee if he can assist them with their research. As Mr. Anderson approaches the table, he noticesthat Spencer is showing the other students the photo that is set as his wallpaper. The photo is apicture of Spencer and other teenagers at what appears to be a party engaging in drug activity.Mr. Anderson catches only a glimpse of the photo because as soon as the students notice Mr.Anderson’s approach, Spencer quickly maximizes another window on the desktop to cover thewallpaper photo.
2 Later in the day, in the teacher’s lounge, Mr. Anderson sees Ms. Baker, the viceprincipal. The two chat about various issues concerning the library, and as part of theconversation, Mr. Anderson mentions that he is concerned about Spencer Johnson and relays toMs. Baker what he saw on Spencer’s laptop. Ms. Baker thanks Mr. Anderson for the informationand then goes back to her office. The information provided by Mr. Anderson is especiallyintriguing to Ms. Baker because earlier that week her office received an anonymous tip that oneor more Carleton High students had been bringing pills to school and providing them to otherstudents. The tip did not specifically name any students, and it did not specify the exact type ofpills. Armed with all of this information, Ms. Baker consults with the principal, Mr. Harper.They want to determine whether Spencer is involved in drug activity. They are concerned abouthis well being and want to get him help if needed. They are also concerned about the safety andwelfare of the other students at the school. They are obligated to protect other students and tomake sure no illegal activity takes place on school grounds. As a result, they decide to use asecurity program already installed on each laptop to see if they can learn more about thesituation. The program allows a technology assistant to remotely activate the webcam embeddedin the laptop screen and take a picture with it. The program can also capture an image of what isdisplayed on the computer screen. Mr. Harper and Ms. Baker ask one of the technologyassistants to activate the security program that evening. Before the start of school the next day,they check in with the technology assistant and discover that the webcam snapped a photo ofSpencer placing pills into his mouth. During first period, Spencer is called to the vice principal’s office. Ms. Baker suspendshim for three days for engaging in inappropriate behavior and as proof she shows him the photo
3taken with the webcam. The school contacts Spencer’s parents to notify them of the suspension.When Mr. and Mrs. Johnson discuss the matter with their son, Spencer tells them that Ms. Bakershowed him a photo that apparently had been taken with the webcam of his school laptop theprevious evening while he was in his bedroom. Spencer says that Ms. Baker cited the photo asevidence that he was engaging in improper behavior, but Spencer says what the photo actuallyshows is him eating Mike and Ike candy. The next day, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson accompany Spencer to school to discuss thesuspension. The Johnsons want the school to lift the suspension because they feel Spencer hasbeen wrongly accused of improper behavior. They also want to know why the school is takingphotos of their child in their home. The school confirms that they are able to activate the webcamremotely, but they neither overturn the suspension nor apologize for using the webcam. TheJohnsons are dissatisfied with the outcome of the meeting and decide to call their attorney. Theend result is that the Johnsons file a class action lawsuit against the Carleton School District forinvasion of privacy.Case Study Questions1. Utilizing Severson’s four-step method, which conflicts are present in the controversy between the Carleton School District and the Johnson family?2. Based on the evidence and the principles of ethics, who do you believe has a stronger case— the school or family? Why?3. Should a school district ever remotely activate the webcam of laptops issued to students? If yes, in what situations would this be appropriate? If no, why? Does the time of day (during school hours or outside of school hours) make a difference in your answer?
44. Could the school have done something different to collect evidence? Give examples and reasoning.5. What are the pros and cons of school issued laptops?6. What security measures should be in place to protect students’ privacy when using school- issued laptops? ReferencesAssociated Press. (2010). School District Is Accused Of Webcam Spying. Retrieved from http://www.npr.orgAssociated Press. (2010). Suit: Schools Spied on Students Via Webcam. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.comMackey, R. (2010, February 19). School Accused of Using Webcam to Photograph Student at Home. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.comMagid, L. (2010, February 23). MAGID ON TECH: School districts webcam spy case grows legs. Peninsula. Retrieved from http://www.mercurynews.com/peninsulaMcGinley, C.W. (2010, February 19). Update from Dr. McGinley regarding high school student laptop security. Retrieved from http://www.lmsd.orgPrince, B. (2010). School District Accused of Webcam Spying. Retrieved from http://www.eweek.comPuffy, S.P. (2010). School District Accused of Spying on Students via Home Webcams. Retrieved from http://www.law.com