Saturday, February 20, 2010

School issues laptop, then uses it to spy on student

This is so mega creepy.

Many school districts are trying to ensure that children have the internet access they need for their schoolwork by issuing every child an identical laptop. In my opinion, done correctly, this is a laudable approach. Every child is guaranteed access, and (again, when done correctly) is provided with a controlled, protected, maintained internet environment, including someone taking care of things like antivirus for them, etc. Now, in order to make all that good maintenance stuff possible, one thing that a district can do is install the equivalent of a remote-access trojan that allows an administrator to reach into all of the district students' laptops and do the necessary maintenance on them from the comfort of the district's data center.

However, some bright person in a Pennsylvania school district took things a little farther. Ostensibly to protect against theft, they had webcams put into the laptops, so that if one were reported stolen, all they'd have to do (ha!) would be to turn on the remote administration, activate the webcam, have a little peek around, and with Holmes-like detective skills, immediately infer where they were, and voila! Track down the thief and retrieve the stolen goods.

I guess it got a little boring when no thefts were reported, so instead they chose to gather some...uh...information...about what kids were doing when their laptops were on. And surprise, surprise, "on November 11, an assistant principal at Harriton High School told the plaintiffs' son that he was caught engaging in "improper behavior" in his home and it was captured in an image via the webcam."

The sad thing is that I think we'll see a lot more of this sort of thing in the future.

Edited to add:
CNN says the school claims it didn't spy on the kid. FBI is checking things out. The fact remains, however, that the District Superintendent does admit that the capability was there to spy. "This feature was limited to taking a still image of the computer user and an image of the desktop in order to help locate the reported missing, lost, or stolen computer (this includes tracking down a loaner computer that, against regulations, might be taken off campus)."

In my opinion, having this capability is just a spying incident waiting to happen.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Citizens united (against Citizens United)

Larry Lessig has an interesting posting on the awful Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

He calls for two main actions:
  1. In the short term: passage of the Fair Elections Now Act. See for a description of this law that basically calls for citizen-funded elections (donations $100 or less)
  2. In the longer term: a constitutional convention to pass an amendment to the constitution to protect the independence of congress from funders (see for his reasoning and proposed amendment)
Lessig is a very interesting guy. Years ago I followed a great online class he and a couple of other lawyers ran on Cyberspace Law. I am not a lawyer (mandatory IANAL here :-), but the class was fascinating and accessible...check it out. It is a little old, but he covers the underlying principles, which I imagine can't have changed all that much. Many of the topics covered (copyright law, privacy law, free speech, etc. as they relate to cyberspace are still very hot topics.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eye of the storm

Doesn't this look like something out of Magritte?

We had rather a lot of snow yesterday.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

On the slow track to justice

A week or so ago I was on a train from New York to Princeton. Somewhere before Linden I heard a bit of a hubbub around me and something about "all for $1.75".

It seems that a young man was trying to get a free ride by sneaking on at one station and sneaking off again at the next station, before the conductor came by to collect tickets. Unfortunately for him, the conductor came by a little too soon. And still more unfortunately for him, it seems that this wasn't the first time he was caught in this behavior. It was his third strike.

The conductor, only slightly older than the culprit, gleefully radioed for reinforcements. So along came the older head conductor, as well as a third conductor to join in the sport. They needled him for a while, and finally, not knowing how else to extract any satisfaction from him, radioed for the police to pick him up at Linden.

The train pulled in to Linden. And waited for the police to arrive. For about 20 minutes. And then waited for the police to debrief the conductors for about 10 minutes. During which time no one was allowed on or off the train, including passengers who just wanted to get off at Linden. Luckily I was in no particular rush, but there were a number of fairly antsy people around.

During all this waiting, I had some leisure to reflect on the incident.

The predominating question in my mind was: who stood to benefit from this exercise in justice? Why was so much collective time allowed to be spent on addressing such a petty "crime"?

Consider how much time was involved: at least one trainful of people, containing possibly hundreds of passengers, was delayed for half an hour, and who knows how many other trains with how many other passengers were held up behind ours? In addition, no fewer than three police officers appeared on the scene to interrogate the dangerous fare-jumper, diverted from protecting the citizens of Linden from other dangers. Who knows what the delays may have cost the passengers, in terms of lost opportunities, irritation to their customers or colleagues or families? Had I been on my way to, say, a job interview, I would undoubtedly have been frantic at the delay. To be fair, I think that the conductors, had they known that the process would be so slow, would have contented themselves with throwing the guy off the train at Linden with a couple of savory curses.

What was the value in spending all this time to punish a $1.75 crime? At the time, it felt like the purpose of the exercise, in the minds of the conductors, was to demonstrate to the world that they were there to uphold the social contract. It wouldn't be fair, after all, to the law-abiding, paying passengers to let some thief off scot-free. And besides, they weren't going to let some dumb-ass criminal make a monkey of them. Probably there were a few people on the train who felt the same way. But I think the majority of the law-abiding, paying passengers on that train would have cheerfully allowed the social contract to be broken in this instance, if only to get to where they were going on time. Clearly there's more at stake than $1.75, but it's not clear to me how much. Is fare-jumping a major revenue-loss for the the trains? I don't know. But it would have to be a pretty significant one, to make a delay like that worthwhile. No one from NJ Transit bothered to share that information with us.

It's a common theme in security: you don't spend more on protecting something than that thing is worth.