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Magazines > Information Today > April 2010

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Information Today

Vol. 27 No. 4 — April 2010

By All Means
by Dick Kaser

For the past few weeks, I’ve been watching the ongoing case of a public school district just outside Philadelphia that recently issued laptops to about 200 of its students. That’s good news, but the story doesn’t stop there.

These school-issued laptops came equipped with built-in webcams and software to help track the computers in the event of theft. However, some school officials allegedly could not resist the temptation to switch on the cameras and check on what the students were doing at home. This was reportedly done in secret and without full disclosure to the parents of the minors who were using the machines.

To my knowledge, it still requires a court order to conduct any type of wiretapping. Even the FBI cannot legitimately monitor a U.S. citizen at home without the express permission of the courts and probable cause. At the very least, such clandestine activities would require a secret writ, issued under the USA PATRIOT Act.

In the collective sense, librarians have been staunch defenders of library patrons’ rights to privacy, and we have covered their resistance to the PATRIOT Act extensively in these pages. I hope that no one in a library would participate in a surveillance activity such as the one alleged in the Philadelphia-area school district. But I cannot say the same for employers. My quick Google search revealed endless examples of “best practices” condoning the monitoring of email sent from company-issued machines.

At the NFAIS conference in February, more than one speaker observed that mobile devices (which are taking over the once-popular niche that laptops filled) are now being used interchangeably for personal and business purposes; I would wager that most professionals really couldn’t tell you where their private lives end and their work lives begin. So where did the idea arise that rules written in an employee handbook can actually override the primary law of the land and confer rights upon private entities that the government doesn’t even have?

It’s time that people in responsible positions sign up for a refresher course in American civics. In this country, there seems to be an increasingly common belief that pursuing good justifies any means and that technology can be exploited to its full extent as a means to any good, even though that exploitation may not be consistent with the highest law of the land.

When I took high school civics (and I actually paid attention), it was during the Cold War years. At that time, the notion that “the end justifies the means” was considered to be totalitarian, with unbridled surveillance regarded as a principal tool in the totalitarian toolkit. When I searched Amazon on the subject of totalitarianism, I found a list of books about Hitler, communism, and fascism. So do I conclude from prevailing beliefs that we won the war, but we ended up being won over?

I suppose nobody (at least nobody in his or her right mind) wants to go back to high school, so I’ll provide a short refresher course here for the benefit of all:

Bill of Rights: Amendment IV—The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (

Interpretation: Few provisions of the Bill of Rights grew so directly out of the experience of the colonials as the Fourth Amendment, embodying as it did the protection against the utilization of the “writs of assistance.” But … there was also a rich English experience to draw on. “Every man’s house is his castle” was a maxim much celebrated in England … the right of the homeowner to defend his house against unlawful entry even by the King’s agents. … (

While trolling the web for these quotes, I came across the following reference:

“The democratic aim of American education is to provide all students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to become informed, effective, and responsible citizens.” (

I would say that the school in Pennsylvania, assuming the allegations are true (in which the act of peeking into houses was thought to be within its charter and prevue), did not provide a good example of teaching our kids what it means to be a good American citizen.

Assuming that business executives received the same quality of education, it’s no wonder that those who are writing computer-use policies for companies don’t get it either. But it’s time they did.

Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.’s vice president of content. For more information on the webcam case, check out
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