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VERIFY: Could school-provided computers and tablets be capable of remote recording outside of class?

Posts are popping up from around the country about whether school-provided laptops and tablets could be recording around the clock. Here's a breakdown.

WASHINGTON — QUESTION:

Is it technologically possible for a school-provided computer or tablet to be recording 24/7?

ANSWER:

Yes, it's possible for someone with administrative access to a device to install software that could remotely record.

While it is possible, the Verify team has not heard of any instances of this out-of-class recording happening here in the D.C. Metro region.

SOURCES:

Dave Levin, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland

Chad Marlow, Senior Advocacy and Policy Counsel at ACLU

PROCESS:

COVID-19 means students across the country are learning from home, but some people online say distance learning comes with its own risks.

A post with more than 71,000 shares claims that school-provided tablets and laptops are capable of recording students when they are not in class.

Did you all know that your kids SCHOOL tablets and laptops are recording everything you say when they are using them??...

Posted by April Ortiz on Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Our Verify team has seen variations of this “big brother” concern popping up online, with some users wary of "spying opportunities."

First and foremost, the Verify team has not heard of any instances of this out-of-class recording happening locally.

Our Verify researchers contacted school districts in DC, Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Fairfax County.

All of them assured us they are not recording students without permission. Each school district does have a specific policy about when they are recording in class.

"They do not have the ability to turn on and record a student’s microphone and camera after school hours," an MCPS spokesperson said about teachers and school employees. 

RELATED: VERIFY: Are people with iPhone or Android phones automatically signed up for contact tracing?

"All students enter their Zoom sessions with their cameras and microphone set to off by default," they said. "A student has to opt-in by turning on their camera and microphone. A teacher can mute a student and/or remove them from a class meeting in cases of behavioral disruptions. Teachers can ask a student to turn on their video during class, but never forcefully turn it on."

Our Verify researchers requested device user agreements from four school jurisdictions:

Fairfax County- "Student Computer/Device Check Out Program Acceptance of Responsibility and Home Use Agreement

District of Columbia- "DCPS Student and Staff Technology and Network Acceptable Use Policy"

Montgomery County- "User Responsibilities for Computer Systems, Electronic Information, and Network Security"  and "Chromebook Acceptable Use Policy

Prince George's County- "Modified Student Device User Agreement" (below)

To learn more about what's possible, the Verify team went to experts to get the facts. 

Our Verify researchers spoke with Dave Levin, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, and Chad Marlow, senior advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU.

First, is it possible?

"If that person has administrative access, then yeah, they could install software that's able to access the webcam, access the microphone, monitor keystrokes, see your browser history, perhaps even take screenshots," Levin said.

Next, what's legal?

Outside of a warrant, Chad Marlow says, generally, when and what a school is legally allowed to record on school-provided devices and apps comes down to what parents agreed to.

"You may have signed permission saying the school is going to use app programs that have web cameras and microphones, I give permission for them to be used without any conditions as to under what circumstances," Chad Marlow said. "And if you provided permission, it's legal."

While it might be possible for these devices to be legally recording without your knowledge, Levin said that whether or not someone could do it 24/7 is complicated.

He explained things like whether or not your device is on, asleep, turned off, or connected to an Ethernet, all come into play. 

So yes, technically, it is technologically possible for school-provided devices to be remotely recording while students are not in class. But again, our researchers are not aware of any instances of this happening in the DC region.