/ Nathan Ringo / 4 am Wed, Dec 3 2014
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  • In Wayzata, Minnesota, a school spies on its students

    In Wayzata, Minnesota, a school spies on its students

    Nathan Ringo writes that school administrators freaked out when he found ways around the district's flawed censorware--and when he warned his fellow students about the spyware and creepy small-print that came with their school iPads.

    I'm a student. As a student, my school is one of my favorite places to be: I enjoy learning and find almost all my teachers to be agreeable. I'm also a programmer and an advocate of free speech. In that role, my school holds a more dubious distinction: it’s the first place where my interests in computers and my rights were questioned.

    Like many other school districts, #284 of Wayzata, Minnesota puts censorware between students and the Internet. This filter lets the school claim federal funding in exchange for blocking pornography. However, Wayzata chose to implement an unsavory policy of blocking not just porn, but anything and everything they feel is inappropriate in a school setting. Worse, I could not find out who makes the judgements about what should be considered inappropriate. It’s not stated in the school board policy that mandates the filter: that police say that the filter should “only block porn, hate speech, and harassment.” Our censorware, however, blocks material ranging from Twitter to comic books. Meanwhile, students are told to use Twitter as part of our Spanish classes and our school offers a course on comic books. Beyond blocking sites that are used in classes, there are also many false positives.

    I started trying to get around the content filtering system in 7th grade, halfway through middle school. I used the old trick of accessing blocked sites by looking up their IPs, then using those in place of their domain names. Back then, the censoring layer was something like a regex matcher strapped onto an HTTP proxy--in other words, all the data was routed through software that simply looked for certain domain names or terms in the URL, then blocked those requests.

    When the school upgraded their filter to a different product, I was stuck on the censored net again for a few months. By eighth grade, I had taught myself to code in C++, an "actual programming language" more powerful than the basic web scripting languages I'd known up until that point. Although I still wasn't able to get past the new censorship with my relatively rudimentary knowledge, I did get introduced to the software tools that could - Linux, SSL, and SOCKS5. With these, I was unaffected by all the bad Internet policy decisions made in the next two and a half years: the blocking of YouTube and Vimeo, rate-limiting on downloads, and an exponentially expanding list of addresses that are deemed to be too horrifying for students to view, such as XKCD, Wikipedia, news websites and anywhere else that, somewhere, contains a naughty word.

    Prior to starting the 10th grade last year, I’d only ever had one major run-in with my school, when the librarian and I had a misunderstanding about my using the computer lab to teach myself DOS Batch after finishing my classwork. So I was surprised to get a summons to the Associate Principal's office. When I arrived, I was told that someone had alleged that I was "hacking the firewall." I have a habit of talking rather quickly when excited, which may have messed up my attempt to explain the difference between cracking and hacking; and that I'd never touched the school's firewall. This first meeting ended inconclusively, with my insistence that I hadn't broken any laws or school rules (true), and that she was using the wrong terminology. A couple of days later, I got called into her office again. This time, the school's webmaster was present. Assuming that he'd know what I was talking about, I then gave a more technical explanation of everything I was doing. The response was that I was still in trouble, despite his understanding that I hadn't done anything wrong "yet". I felt like they were implying that by avoiding censorship, I was obviously heading for a life of computer crime. Weeks passed, and I assumed that the whole thing had blown over.

    Nope. I was brought to a conference room, and I started to get worried. While I knew that I hadn't done anything wrong, I also knew that there are very few good things that happen when a student is told to report to a conference room. There, the "Director of Technology" responded to my previous complaint that I was being persecuted for a non-existent rule violation with more implications of future illegal activity, with a librarian chipping in one of my most hated lines, "But if you're not doing anything wrong, why are you so concerned about privacy?"

    The associate principal "helped" by referring to me as a cracker. I don't think too many people at the meeting had knowledge of the cracker-hacker dichotomy, so there was a bit of silence after that line. The Director of Technology then pulled out a copy of a board policy with a highlighted bit essentially claiming that he personally is entitled to enact and enforce any punishment that he deems fit, regarding any sort of conduct relating to the school's technology. After that, my Internet access within the school was revoked for the rest of the term. To get it back, I was assigned to write an apologetic letter talking about how I'd be more "responsible" in the future, as if I had shown some outburst of immaturity by wanting uncensored access to the Internet.

    This year, the problems started again. Before the year even started I got in trouble for opposing the upcoming technology plan. The school board decided to purchase an iPad for every student, fill it up with spyware and more censorware, and hand them out with little explanation of this software and what it did.

    I thought this was horrible, so naturally I fought it. I stood by the line for iPads and read aloud the “contract” that all students were forced to agree to, and loudly pointed out the clause that explicitly allows the district to monitor us at any time, for any reason.

    I was directed to the same Associate Principal. I was once again subjected to the "if you're innocent, why are you hiding stuff" line before being directed out of the building, without an iPad. Since then, the ban on Internet access from the school has been reinstated, until I meet with a different Associate Principal and the Director of Technology.

    Students don’t get to call those meetings, so I’m just waiting until my day comes. In the meantime, I've had to use my own tablet-- a Surface Pro 1 running Arch Linux--and my own Internet connection--over Bluetooth from my phone--while in school.

    As a student, I find my school a great place to be. As an advocate of free speech, however, the school's policies are terrible.

    Photo: Mike Bendetti

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