In 2010, the news broke that Harriton High School, in a suburb of Philadelphia, was activating webcams on student laptops1. When they were at home. In their bedrooms. They captured photos while students were in private spaces, where they never expected to be watched.

A few days ago, I heard about another school that is also surveilling their students: AltSchool. They are taking a very different approach: the cameras are visible and are there to help improve education, to conduct research and find out how to more effectively educate our students.

On the face of it, it looks like AltSchool is doing something noble. At the very least, the surface level does not appear to be immoral, let alone nearly as repugnant as what was done at Harriton High School. And in some ways, that is true: the surveillance itself does not appear to be leading to negatives here, and it passes the minimum bar of informing all involved parties.

However, there is an insidious side effect, and one which is far worse: it will acclimate the students to a surveillance state. In our society we are fighting a battle for our privacy right now, and in many ways, the next generation will be the one to seal the deal. Either they will embrace and extend privacy tools and policy, or they will embrace and extend government and corporate surveillance. By exposing our children to pervasive surveillance during their most formative years, we risk permanently shifting the balance toward surveillance and numbing our children to its dangers.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that there is room for massive improvement in education. However, the solution ought to include positive new technology, like better adaptive learning tools. We are better than this. We can innovate and create great new tools that will help, or even revolutionize, our children’s education. But if we want to do that, we need to do it ethically and ensure that we do not accidentally harm society while trying to help it.

The ACM has a code of ethics for software engineers. From it: “Approve software only if they have a well-founded belief that it is safe, meets specifications, passes appropriate tests, and does not diminish quality of life, diminish privacy or harm the environment. The ultimate effect of the work should be to the public good.” 2.

I welcome you to think and comment about this: if we subject our children to pervasive surveillance, will that lead to less privacy? Is that to the public good?

1 More information is available on Wikipedia.
2 I tried to put this as a block quote in my Markdown, but it wasn’t rendering as one – anyone know how to get that working? Is it a problem with my theme?