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Many schools won't issue Web-cam laptops

When he heard about alleged spying on school-issued laptops in Lower Merion, Benedict Tantillo quickly checked with technicians in his Bergen County, N.J., school system.

When he heard about alleged spying on school-issued laptops in Lower Merion, Benedict Tantillo quickly checked with technicians in his Bergen County, N.J., school system.

"We don't have that capability, right?" asked Tantillo, superintendent of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District.

He breathed a sigh of relief. "Our people knew about the software, but decided there were other ways of providing security," Tantillo said.

In Maine, with one of the largest school laptop programs in the country, principals also wanted to know whether computers were equipped with the Web cams.

"We had discussed it, but decided not to touch it with a 10-foot pole," said Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director of the Maine Department of Education. "We saw no upside to it."

Across the country, many school districts that provide laptops to students rejected the technology after seeing potential problems - ones that did not deter Lower Merion education officials.

Other districts chose to keep computers in the schools, and some are now reexamining security and privacy guidelines to prevent abuses of those laptops that do go home.

In Lower Merion, school-issued laptops contain cameras that the school can trigger remotely, then retrieve the photos taken. The district has said cameras were part of its security precautions and were activated only to track lost or missing computers.

The Web-cam controversy "really is surprising; I didn't even know a computer has the ability to do that," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

"Some alarm should have gone off that there is potential" for problems, he said. "I would say most school districts weren't aware that laptops have that capability.

"Administrators are asking their tech people about the laptop cameras," Domenech said. "We're talking about devices that can send visual images, and that should raise concerns. Students and parents should have been made aware."

Domenech, former superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, Va., said the Lower Merion controversy was prompting school systems across the country to look at their security and privacy guidelines.

"You have to establish proper procedures and rigid guidelines," he said. "All of these devices come with potential problems."

New technologies such as remotely activated Web cams have placed the country "in the earliest stages of a protracted conversation on the new rules of the road," said Lee Raine, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan "fact tank" that studies the social impact of the Internet. "This is the first time I have ever heard of anything like this.

"It wouldn't surprise me if there is more general policy-making by local districts," he said. "What we get loud and clear from the data on adults is that Americans highly value their privacy. . . . When you add children to the picture, that adds complexity and intensity to all the discussions."

The "real question is, 'Are we thinking about what's allowable and what's not?' " said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, an association of technology leaders who advise school districts.

"We can't parachute some technology in and expect people to know how to use it," he said. "I think having the ability to use technology and using the technology are two different things."

School leaders should think "more carefully about the policies and procedures," Krueger said. "We have to take a deep breath and, ask what's the risk and what risk are we willing to accept?"

Clearly, some school districts are not willing to take a risk with the Web cam.

In the Bergen County district, which has 2,100 students in two high schools, superintendent Tantillo said the schools "don't have any business checking on what someone is doing in their private time.

"We use a tracking system to locate missing or stolen laptops," he said. "We're able to locate it using [a computer's Internet] address, then police obtain a search warrant to check for the laptop. We've lost seven or eight in six years."

In Maine, where 70,000 laptops are deployed, Jeff Mao and his staff at the state Department of Education discussed the risks of the Web cam with his staff, saw the potential problems, and rejected it.

"Most of the schools saw the same thing," Mao said. "I remember the conversations [about the Web cam] last summer. Some people thought it was cool; others said, 'I wouldn't go there.' "

Mao said school officials were concerned that equipment or human error could lead to the camera's being switched on when it wasn't supposed to be.

"What if it accidentally started taking pictures?" he said. "You could have an 11-year-old child who steps out of the shower and is toweling off. You could have child pornography.

"Everything is about risk - the risk of losing a device vs. the disaster that can occur," he said. "I would rather lose a computer than hurt a child."

In the Henrico County, Va., public schools, which also have a large laptop program, the remotely operated Web cams are disengaged until a computer is stolen. About 26,000 laptops have been issued to students.

The school system's technology director can turn on the camera only after the theft has been reported to police and the number of the report is entered, officials said.

"On the front end, we wanted to be clear with parents that we would use this device only when there was a theft," said Mychael Dickerson, a school district spokesman.

In California, the Fullerton Elementary School District provides laptops to its pupils but - like Henrico County - it requires a reported theft before security measures are activated.

Many other schools across the country are giving their laptop guidelines a second look.

On Monday, the McCracken County, Ky., school district began removing tracking software from laptop computers assigned to high school students. Technicians are deleting software that allows access to Web cams and monitors usage on 2,170 laptops.

"When we realized we had a potential problem, we decided to uninstall the program," said McCracken County Schools technology director Heath Cartwright.

The school district said the software had been uninstalled from nearly all the computers. Cartwright said the school district allows the use of the laptop camera only if the computer has been officially reported stolen and police are notified.

Schools in the Bronx, N.Y., and Princeton have found another way of avoiding problems: Keep laptops in the classrooms and labs.

"We have been favoring the use of laptop carts to serve the students in the school," said Dave Janosz, supervisor of technology at Northern Valley Regional High School, which has sites in Old Tappan and Demarest, N.J.

"We do that because of our concerns about security, damage, and the costs to keep up with the system," said Janosz, former executive director of the Technology Educators Association of New Jersey.

Laptop security and privacy issues are so new that they haven't received much attention from the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "It's nothing we should be commenting on," said association spokeswoman Linda Embrey. "It's too local - nothing we have offered national guidance on."

Despite the furor over the alleged spying in Lower Merion, Tantillo of Pascack Valley Regional High said laptops "have been a boon to the education of the kids."

"I wouldn't want the publicity over what happened to be a reason to condemn the program," he said. "The benefits of laptops far outweigh a few instances of maybe poor judgment. I don't think they [Lower Merion officials] had bad intentions."

Added Krueger, of the Consortium for School Networking: "When something bad happens, the media and community say, 'Throw the baby out with the bathwater.' Some bad things will happen. This is not a world without risk. We're not going back to writing on stone tablets."