New Jersey Schools must warn students, families if Big Brother is watching
New guidelines require districts to notify parents, kids that software and built-in camera can monitor use.
The provocatively named Anti-Big Brother Act arose out of a situation in Pennsylvania in which a school district was accused of spying on students through their school-issued laptops, including taking literally thousands of pictures.
New Jersey legislators seeking to prevent such incidents here passed the new law this past spring. It requires districts to notify students and their families that computers issued to them may be equipped to record their locations and use. It also says that such information will not be used "in a manner that would violate the privacy rights of the student or any individual residing with the student."
But that's where things can get murky, so the state Department of Education this week released additional guidelines about what the law covers and what other policies should also be in place to cover extenuating circumstances.
For instance, the guidelines explains that the law specifically pertains to computers furnished to students for use outside of schools, something that is not the norm in New Jersey but is hardly rare anymore, with some schools providing every student with a computer.
The guidelines say students should also be notified not just that the computer may have a camera but also that software records very document opened, every email sent or received, and every online site visited.
"The intent of this law is for the district to notify the student that their electronic device will store information when the student is outside of school, and that the stored information will not be used in any way to violate the student's privacy rights (or that of any individual who resides with the student)," read the memo written by assistant commissioner Evo Popoff.
Still, in an age when privacy is a big topic in the news and is being tested online and off, even one of the law's primary sponsors said there may need to be some exceptions added to the legislation, or at least addressed.
What if, for example, tracking or even just maintenance of the computer resulted in discovery of something troubling of a sexual, violent or potentially criminal nature?
Other laws may cover some of these eventualities, but state Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) said she didn't want her bill complicating the situation.
"It is a blanket law now, and maybe there need to be exceptions," said Quijano, one of the primary sponsors in the Assembly. "There can be a lot of things that kids can get into. It's something we should look at."
Quijano said she moved on the bill after learning of the 2010 case in Lower Merion, Pa., where students discovered that certain school employees had been able to watch them at home through the computers' cameras, ostensibly in an effort to find some missing computers. News reports said as many as 50,000 photos had been taken.
Parents sued the district, and the school settled with the families for a total of $600,000. A separate criminal investigation cleared the district, but the incident set off alarms elsewhere, including in New Jersey where state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) filed a bill on the Senate side.
"You wonder if something like that could happen here, and I saw that there wasn't any legislation or regulation," said Quijano in an interview yesterday. "It only takes one bad actor."
The bills passed easily in both chambers and were signed by Gov. Chris Christie in April.
School associations have so far supported the act, saying the notifications are useful in letting students and families know their rights and limits.
The state's school boards association initially voiced concerns about the fines imposed for districts not complying -- $250 for each student affected and each incident – but a spokesman yesterday likened it to locker searches or random drug testing.
"Whenever you are dealing with expectations of privacy and whether or not violated, you get into dangerous ground and need to have that notification," said Frank Belluscio, the association's communications director.
"This helps draw that line where the privacy ends and the school's authority begins," he said, adding the school boards association plans to develop some model policies in the coming months for schools to consider.
Belluscio remembered a decade or so ago when rules centered on "accepted use policies" for computers inside schools, with various filters and limitations that followed.
"But we've gone beyond that to the iPads and laptops taken home, to the social media and even cyber-bullying," he said. "It is getting increasingly complicated."
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