Wiki Leaks and your local public school
By now you have likely heard of the WikiLeaks controversy and have found yourself pulled toward one of two possible thought camps. On one hand, Julian Assange, founder of Wiki Leaks, is seen as a commoner hero, gateway of hidden information that the public has a right to know. Somewhere between Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and Jason Bourne, Assange managed to evade some of the post powerful intelligence units on Earth all the while drip-feeding sensitive military information to the public via the world wide web. On the other hand Assange is more akin to a terrorist, jeopardizing U.S. intelligence assets worldwide and undermining global confidence in our ability to keep sensitive information secret. Allies and enemies alike are confounded that their memos and emails, ambassadorial exchanges, and communications via emails and other modes, were planted on Assange’s site for the world. Thus arises a great battle between the public’s right to know, the ability to hold leaders accountable and square reality with what they say in public, and also our ability as a nation to counter well funded and determined adversaries who seek the annihilation of modern civilization including this idea of Democracy and a Constitutional Republican form of government. Nothing new, really.
Rather than contribute to the already gaping chasm between the political right, and left, within our country; a purposeful divide in my opinion, I have another angle I’d like to present regarding the lesson of the Wiki Leaks debacle and how it pertains to all American citizens.
Let’s first remind ourselves that these memos were intended to be secret. The cables were often encrypted, and that neither the U.S. State Department nor the Pentagon intended for the information to fall into the hands of anyone outside the closed system. All conspiracy theories are thrown aside and are deemed essentially irrelevant for the main point of this essay.
Enter public schools. A few years ago while I was teaching I witnessed the introduction of individual log-in codes for each student as a means of secure access to computers within Buncombe County. The reason given for this was to keep students from using inappropriate sites and to monitor their activity both realtime if necessary or in a stored data form that could be accessed by administrators. Being a history teacher it pained me that students could no longer engage in anonymous research, fueled by curiosity, without fear of some Big Brother, or Sister, looking over their shoulder. After all, the pornography sites and game sites were already blocked, proxy servers were routinely updated and stopped, and the teachers did a good job of monitoring the room and keeping tabs on what students were doing. In my opinion it was a danger to academic freedom that would hurt high level students the most; students who might be curious about the origins of such TAG words as Al-Qaeda, the Mujahadeen, political activism, environmentalism, anarchy, firearms or weapons in historical context, terrorism in general, civil disobedience, extremist groups of any form, or historical problems within U.S. power systems such as COINTELPRO or any other domestic security apparatus that went awry during its life. Researching any of these does not mean support, in fact, quite the opposite, students often did research on groups that they despised such as the KKK or Nazism in Europe, or even modern Neo-Nazis. It became clear that any searches, emails, online writings, texts or messages were filtered through the county system. Some were blocked, some were not. All were catalogued to that student’s personal number. Why does this matter? It’s all for our safety isn’t it?
I started to wonder who reviewed this mountain of data. I started to wonder how long the data was stored, who had access to the student histories, and when would it be deleted, if ever. I asked Buncombe County tech director, Monty Fuchs, this very question in a staff meeting and was brushed off like an irritating fly. I asked specifically how long would student computer activities be stored and who decided what was a threatening TAG worthy of further investigation. Somewhat angrily, he replied, “This is the way of the future.” I replied, “Not if I can help it.” I asked the media center specialists if there was an anonymous terminal students could use for sensitive research. They looked like deer in the headlights. What’s more, students doing work for history day projects were having a terrible time getting to any information on their subjects with the filters blocking subjects at every turn. Personal requests for access, from students, for the project, were denied, and they were told to pick another topic. I did notice that blocks were roughly falling in a political fashion; meaning, gun sites that were against the use of weapons in any form passed the filters but the NRA statistics or military weapons specifications from past conflicts were all blocked.
I brought this up at a constitutional convention of sorts that was held at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and aired on local TV. The speaker, a victorious lawyer in a recent high profile national case, declared such activities as those above to be patently unconstitutional and challengeable in court. Interestingly, the next update from Buncombe County Tech for teachers had an article on the importance of their filter system and reiterated that it was not censorship, it was safety, and argued a variety of irrelevant points. Monty Fuchs even stated in the Owen School newspaper that anyone resistant to the change that was taking place was simply unable to adapt, and that anything new will have its detractors, that people just hate change. Talk about condescension – it felt like being told I was unpatriotic because I believed the Patriot Act had a load of crap in it. I am not a moron. I am an educated critical thinker who holds the highest ideals of our Republic in great, almost sacred, esteem. Not only that, but I don’t care what political stripe you identify yourself with – any time the authorities want detailed personal thought information on the masses, starting with 10 year olds, a red flag pops up in MY filter system.
For a time I just let students use my number to conduct research. Hell, I’m sure I’m on about every list there is so it didn’t bother me. I monitored to make sure they weren’t doing anything that would be hurtful in the profession of education, and the students had one more year of freedom to read and write without the suspicious eyes of…whoever. Which brings me to the next point.
Who wanted this information? For what purposes did they want it? Why did no one tell the public what was going on with their children? If it was anything like the security cameras in Buncombe County, paid for by Department of Homeland Security, then DHS got payback by having constant access, realtime, to any of the county cameras via internet based feeds. Was this computer monitoring also feeding straight to DHS, was my local ‘Fusion’ center identifying potential future terrorists? Was the FBI identifying possible dissident Americans before they reached freaking high school based on intelligence and interest profiles? How would someone know if they were flagged in the system? Was there oversight in case a mistake was made or if an ID number was used from another student? The answers – well there aren’t any.
Enter Wiki Leaks. The common response to any of the above questions is something like, “the information is secure and used to prevent (insert bad thing here)”. So let’s let go of the distrust of DHS, Buncombe County, or even Mr. Fuchs himself. Let’s propose the mere possibility that all of this stored information can be accessed by anyone in the world. How do you feel about the Chinese Government/Military tech conglomerate hijacking this information for research on American children. What could hackers do with detailed information on the research habits and individual identities of U.S. children? After all, the log in numbers did have a relation to student social security numbers. Oops! Did I say that? Of course, now you may start to see a bigger picture in why it is hard for me to remain not-laid-off as a school teacher. Put me in a school that develops real thinking skills and I’ll be administrator in 5 years. Of course we might be on the terror watch list.
Wiki Leaks has a lesson for us. What we think is secure, is not. What we think is buried, is still alive. History has a lesson for us. Power is corrupting, and leadership systems gone awry use information on the public to quell dissent, organization, to destroy movements afoot, protests, and in the worst examples, to eliminate opposition by any means. Buncombe county has a lesson for us. Things will be done which you will not be told about, for purposes you won’t understand, by people you can’t identify. Find out today if your local school district employs this technology and uncover, if you dare, where the information goes. Get it in writing who has access and for what purposes exactly. Find out how long data is stored and by what means it is destroyed. And always remember there is a Julian Assange out there, thousands of them, willing to profit or martyr themselves to throw the system into chaos or achieve some political goal. How can democracy survive if one group in power can achieve total information awareness of the citizenry? It cannot.
- Spencer Bolejack taught in Buncombe County Schools following in his parents footsteps. He was laid off in 2009 due to budget cuts and currently operates his own extra curricular program LOTSWild in western NC. He also teaches US History and Environmental Science one day a week at Deep Young Academy in Waynesville NC.