School shows off its laptop surveillance tactics

PBS "Frontline" footage shows a Bronx school assistant principal spying on students as they use the Webcams of their school-issued laptops. He seems to think nothing of it.

Chris Matyszczyk
2 min read

"This kid looks like they're editing their MySpace page."

So declares an assistant principal at Intermediate School 339 in the Bronx borough of New York, a "former technology coach" (PDF) named Dan Ackerman (but not to be confused with CNET's Dan Ackerman). You might imagine that he's wandering around a classroom looking over kids' shoulders as they fiddle about on their laptops. You might imagine, then, that storks deliver milk as well as babies.

This remarkable 2009 footage from the PBS show "Frontline," promoted on its site earlier this month and thrust into the limelight on Thursday by the people at Boing Boing, might just make your own moral code offer a boing or two, as you view the apparent normality of a school administrator peeping into his students' lives through software installed on their school-issued laptops.

The entertainment begins at around the 4:30 mark. We watch him watching a girl comb her hair, using her Mac's Photo Booth application as a mirror. He then observes the editing of a MySpace profile page, reportedly via a program called Apple Remote Desktop, marketed as enabling teachers to "pause all of their [students'] screens, give them new instructions, and start them up again when [they're] ready."

Perhaps the most chilling line of the video, especially in the context of this week's revelations at Harriton High School in Pennsylvania--which allegedly used security software to surreptitiously activate a school-issued laptop Webcam when off-campus--is when Ackerman utters these words with almost a chuckle: "They don't even realize that we're watching."

They seem to realize something, though. As Ackerman demonstrates how he "always [likes] to mess with [students] and take a picture" by remote-controlling the Photo Booth software, a girl ducks out of shot.

"Nine times out of 10," Ackerman explains, referring to the moment Photo Booth indicates to the student that a picture is being taken, "they duck out of the way." And on occasion, according to "Frontline" reporter Rachel Dretzin, Ackerman interrupts students' instant-message conversations "with his own message, telling them to get back to work."

I know that technology moves so fast that perhaps, like Google's engineers, we don't stop to wonder about even half the potential consequences that such rapid invention invites. And certainly, on-campus laptop monitoring, as is demonstrated in this "Frontline" footage, is different from off-campus Webcam activation.

But I must confess that if one of my teachers had spied on me during my school days, I might have been sorely tempted to pay him a visit with some rather large, unshaven friends from the local Polish Club--after lunch, you understand.