Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Kutztown 13

The Kutztown incident is a very good example of "what not to do". Let's
see if I can explain this and why I think that even attempting to impose "community service" might be a bad idea.

The basic situation: the school attempted to press felony charges
against school children for repeatedly bypassing security functions
installed by the school.

The problems:

  • Attempting to become the parent
  • Assuming
    all students are the same
  • Lack of due care and due
    diligence
  • Other problems

Attempting to become the parent

The parents cannot be held responsible for the actions of their
children because it is the school that acted as "the parent" in this
situation by putting an adult "tool" into the hands of a minor. Use of
an adult tool, be it car, gun, or communications device requires a
specific level of adult judgement. This is something that most minors
do not have and it is also something that is not easily replaced by
software, especially software purchased via a least-bidder contract.

The responsible adult(s) in this situation are still the school board
and the teachers (those that gave the adult tools to the minors). Most
parents do not understand computer technology/security or the related
federal laws. Thus, the school became (and remains) the responsible
party by being the knowledgeable "enabler" by putting an adult "tool"
into the hands of minors and then not providing constant adult
supervision.

Although the parents probably signed a permission slip, it's probable
that they didn't understand the implications of that permission. I'm
willing to bet even a poor lawyer could break the supposed contract in
that permission slip.

Assuming that all students are the same

Regardless of the "we're all equal" tripe that is force-fed in most
schools today, students differ. They have different/differing IQ's,
religions, respect for authority, and upbringings. Occasionally (ahem)
you'll have a student that is smart enough and motivated (peer pressure
in high school usually will override ethics and authority) to take
advantage of an opportunity. Peer recognition will usually cause this
"seized opportunity" to be shared.

Believing that the installed
protections were adequate enough to (to use a noun as a verb)
countermeasure all students abilities and motivations, makes the
school eligible for the InfoSec Darwin Awards, if such a thing ever
exists. To maintain "security", your minimum protections must be
sufficient to counter the most talented and badly motivated user, not
the "average" user. 'Nuff said?

Lack of due care and due diligence

AKA "poor judgement". The school displayed poor judgement (lack of
due care) by putting an adult "tool" into the hands of a minor and then
neglecting to provide adequate supervision when the minor
exercised that tool. Even though the school may have believed that it
had practiced "due care" by installing various protections, it obviously
didn't practice "due diligence".

"Due care" equates to taking the necessary precautions to prevent an
incident (an instantiation of a risk). Obviously, the level of security
was not sufficient to prevent an incident. That the incident was as
severe as it was and that it involved so many students is an indication
that there was a difference between perceived and actually required
protections.

"Due diligence" is the practice of enforcing those precautions
(countermeasures) and being able to prove their consistent enforcement
over time (auditing, record keeping, etc.). What occurred didn't happen
overnight. Who was reading the firewall/router logs? IM traffic is
easy to detect. The school should have noticed when the first student
started experimenting with his laptop.

"Due care" and "due diligence" also requires adjustment of
countermeasures they reveal an inadequacy. The article indicates that
the situation continued to exist, even after detentions, suspensions and
"other punishments" (what the heck does that mean?). This means
that the school only attempted to correct the situation by external
measures (getting the parents involved). The school obviously failed to
increase required physical, logical and administrative countermeasures.

"Adequate supervision" involves the phrases "consistent (and
constant) supervision" and "adult-quality judgement". Believing that
adult judgement can be replaced with software, especially when "physical
security" is negated by allowing student custody of the laptops, is a
serious mis-judgement.

Use of desktop machines in a formal classroom setting implies a
certain level of integrity provided by constant physical security and
near-constant physical presence of authority. This "advantage" was lost
by issuing portable systems and allowing them to be taken out of the
"secure environment". Even if possession of the laptops were restricted
to the school, you can't assume that the 50 year-old part-time teacher
would be able to recognize improper or illegal activity in study hall.

Other problems

Err... How about overreacting? The "zero tolerance" policy often
quoted by public school officials is often a rationalization to vacate a
school's responsibility/judgement or to hide their own
complicity-due-to-negligence in a situation. In this case, all three
might be involved.

Some of the security "tools" installed by the school may have been
illegal. While it is permissive for a parent to invisibly monitor their
child's online activity, serious questions should be asked when a school
installs the ability to monitor students' activities on an individual
basis
. In other words, generic monitoring (watching proxy or router
logs for suspicious activity) is generally permissible with prior
notice. However, employing a "a remote monitoring function that let
administrators see what students were viewing on their screens
,"
without just cause (and usually a search warrant), is likely to be a
felony in itself. Remember, we are not talking about parent-child or
employer/employee relationships.

Parent-child relationships/responsibilities have created unique legal
conditions which are not easily transferred to institution-child
relationships/responsibilities. In this case, the school can probably
be slapped with a "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" charge
for not providing adequate supervision after facilitating (providing the
tools of) the crime.

That the tools of the crime were provided by the school, that the
object(s) of the crime was also school property, and that the
perpetrators of the crime were school charges has created a very sticky
situation for the school. The school exacerbated the situation by
attempting to charge the students with felonies, thereby drawing the
attention of national media.

Closing comments:

  • this "experiment" obviously has
    failed
  • attempting to "save face", as the article puts it, via
    imposed community service, risks yet more embarrassment
  • since
    this is a public school which accepts federal money and keeps digital
    records on its students, do you think FISMA or GLB applies?