School Wi-Fi: What Can They See?

Smartphones seem quite personal, but how private are they when students connect to RHS Wi-Fi?

When connecting to the network, a screen pops up asking if the student will agree to use the network responsibly. It warns, “All actions are subject to MCPS review and may be logged and archived.” Students must press “accept” on this screen .

The county details its technology regulations in a manual called the Regulation IGT-RA. The manual directly states that “use of the Internet will be monitored using a variety of methods.” MCPS is obligated by the Children Internet Protection Act and Protecting Students in the 21st Century Act to protect students from harmful content on the Internet.

“I don’t really have anything to hide because I only check my social media, email and texts at schoola��,” senior Kathleen Mc Tighe said. “It’s kinda weird how I don’t know what they can and cannot see. … Do they see things involving my texts?”

According to IT Systems Specialist Jennifer Lomax, all moni tored information goes through the county’s central office: the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO). Lomax and Prin cipal Billie-Jean Bensen receive a report of all logged information, and suspicious activity is flagged.

Stephen Dolney works directly under the associate superin tendent in OCTO. “Monitoring does occur at real time and can be reviewed for violation of MCPS regulation,” he said. “[It] also is reviewed when specific events are alleged.”

On a smartphone, the central office can only see informa tion related to the Internet, and it monitors all of those activities. The sites a student visits are logged, but officials cannot see stu dent texts or photos. Lomax and administration only investigate flagged accounts.

Depending on the level of the offense, administration can take different actions. “We can disable accounts a�� from maybe two days for something minor to a week,” Lomax said.

When students and staff use MCPS email accounts, there is no expectation of privacy. The content of emails themselves can be accessed within 30 days. However, Internet usage history is logged and stored for a year.

School officials can also make requests to OCTO for informa tion, which are directed to the Chief Technology Officer. “Upon his approval, information is released to the requesting authority for educational purposes only,” Dolney said.

Even if RHS can access what students look at on their phones, is it legal to do so? Students do have some limitations inside school walls, but the line is fuzzy when defining search and seizure with regard to the Internet.

Past generations of high school students had to deal with bat tling unreasonable search and seizure, a violation of the Fourth Amendment, in terms of locker searches. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that school officials, unlike police, can search stu dents without a warrant if they have “reasonable grounds” for do ing so.

But searching students’ cell phone history and seizing data wirelessly is a whole new playing field. The American Civil Lib erties Union (ACLU) is working to define student cell phone privacy, since little case law exists regarding the matter as new technology becomes more prominent in peoples’ lives.

The ACLU of Maryland has made significant headway in de fining digital privacy for police. Police can no longer use cell phone tower signals to track a person’s location and can no longer de mand to read emails, texts, tweets and other online content with out a search warrant for probable cause.

“It’s well accepted that they can’t search your home if they don’t have a warrant,” Meredith Curtis of the ACLU of Maryland said. “[This is] another kind of search.”

In a 2010 case involving the Northeast Pennsylvania School District, a student’s phone was taken by a teacher because the stu dent used it in class. Then, administrators searched through the phone and suspended the student for storing semi-nude photos, which had not been distributed.

Curtis said, “Right now we are advocating for another bill stating that schools cannot demand that students give over their password and login information for their social media accounts.”

There is a difference between having a phone taken by secu rity and searched through, and monitoring information such as In ternet usage from specific student accounts. The OCTO makes it clear that the latter happens often, and is very much legal.