Saturday, January 31, 2009

High School Not Confidential

The Internet often doesn't present a very flattering portrait of young people. Some show their callousness by choosing to sell their Facebook friends for a pittance in the Whopper Sacrifice. Some show their idiocy when their work is posted by instructors and test administrators on websites such as They Didn't Study. But it is possible for the teen crowd to engage in critical thinking, even about social computing, which they have supposedly naturalized.

So kudos to Santa Monica High School students Salonee Bhaman and Lindsay Reno for writing a cover story in the campus newspaper that is actually better than some of the Facebook coverage that I have seen in the Los Angeles Times. The article encourages young people to read social software user agreements carefully and presents a lengthy local investigation that features quotations from a number of school administrators about their use of the popular social network site.

As cyber-bullying and inappropriate online behavior become greater problems for teenagers, some Sam administrators turn to Facebook bages a resources for keeping the campus safe. In doing so, they chart controversial legal territory and raise questions about online privacy and student privacy in general.

"Legally, administrators may discipline students for actions that interfere with a school's learning process even if they take place outside of school," said Dr. Jose Inguez, O House Principal.
. . .
According to I House principal Eva Mayoral, teenagers mistakenly believe kids won't report online behavior that makes them uncomfortable.

"There are a lot of kids who have access to Facebook. When kids feel wronged, they come to administrators to make it right, and bring proof of what's disrupting the learning environment at Samo," Mayoral said.

Nevertheless, those involved don't always come prepared with printouts, and the situation might require additional investigation by an administrator. Some administrators feel this includes an obligation to personally search Facebook.

Doing so is not illegal; when online information is open to the public, it is also open to administrators. If privacy settings are not activated on a teenager's Facebook, it is easy and certainly legal for school officials to review the profile.

However, some wonder if other methods are employed. Certain students suspect administrators of creating fake Facebook profiles, allowing them to "befriend" Samo students and look at their private pages. Presumably for safety reasons, those administrators who do use Facebook as a resource kept this detail confidential.

Furthermore, administrators provided a variety of responses when asked if they have the ability to contact Facebook and receive access to private information. Some said they had no knowledge of the issue, and others claimed it would be harmful to Facebook's credibility if the site offered anyone a backdoor to information. Contrarily, Iniguez said that failure to assist an investigation related to school safety would also be harmful to the site's credibility and possibly illegal.

Some insight can be found within Facebook's own Terms and Conditions, which claim to share users' information "with third parties only in limited circumstances where we believe such sharing is 1) reasonably necessary to offer the service, 2) legally required, or 3) permitted by you.

Key loopholes are imbedded in this ambiguous language. Not limited to the courts, Facebook may share information with "other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies." High school administrators and college admissions offers could be included under the legal blanket of "government agencies."

While the degree of access administrators receive is largely unknown, it is apparent that Facebook has been important in solving certain campus problems. During the class conflicts surrounding the October pep rally, juniors and seniors perceived as influential were called into their house offices for a discussion about getting '09 and '10 back on track. A few House principals referred to annotated stacks of Facebooks throughout these meetings.

The article may insinuate too much and even verge on conspiracy theory at some points, but it encourages high school students to reflect about how the site permits certain forms of surveillance and how they may have signed up without reading what they were agreeing to.

(Thanks to Ogan Gurel for the "They Didn't Study" link. French speakers may have also seen regrettable answers to questions on the baccalauréat exam circulating on the Internet.)

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