Schools Spy On You.

Chances are that you, one of your children, or at very least someone you know is taking school classes online. This number has obviously exploded with the pandemic and basically the entirety of the world’s schooling being virtual, however at this point we’re more or less “back to normal”. Prior to the pandemic there absolutely was e-learning software out there, but for obvious reasons they’ve become far more prevalent since March 2020.

Enter Lanschool. A program initially developed in the 80’s, but really went into the modern era in 2018 with their “Lanschool Air” version. Think of their classic program as being a parental control program on a computer, but their “air” version being exactly the same only it’s completely remotely administered. Oh, and it’s also got a really cool feature that allows the “teacher” to have complete control over the user’s computer. Yes that’s right, they can secretly enable microphones, the webcam, have full access to view, edit, and deleted your files – heck, they can even add ones of their own! They can log all of your keystrokes, meaning that they can even record all of your usernames/passwords, or credit card information, all in the background. Simply put, Lanschool is a completely evil tool and you need to be aware of what you’re giving someone access to if you’ve got it installed on any of your devices.

Why Would I Even Install It?

Good question. If it’s so horrible, just delete it, right? Well, probably not so fast. Chances are this is a mandatory application to take whatever class it is, or be enrolled in remote learning. There’s even the possibility that it’s a school issued computer so they have full admin rights anyways. In other cases you may have bought a Chromebook or something from the school which you were told was effectively mandatory. Of course, if you read the various terms and conditions of the sale, the school will likely still own 1% of the device, thus giving them some sort of back-door legal loophole to maintain administrative rights on the thing. On a side note, this is why you ALWAYS buy all of your electronics – especially cellphones, tablets, and computers – outright. Never allow anyone to have some sort of ownership stake in your devices.

Great, so it’s installed and there’s nothing you can do about it. Or is there? We’ll get to that.

Surely It’s Just To Keep Students On Track

Generally, yes! I’d wager that 95% of it’s use is going to be well within reason because the overwhelming majority of teachers are completely reasonable people with no other motive than dedicating their lives to educating others. But with any subsection of people there’s going to be some bad actors. And it’s here that I illustrate my point.

We’ve seen incidents of predator high school teachers having non-consensual relations with students, tons of professor/student relationships in colleges & universities, and how many instances where a teacher has more or less used their power of authority over a student in nefarious ways.

With this tool the people who hold the “teacher” access card can do some pretty invasive stuff. But, this could also be other administration within the school such as other teachers besides the ones teaching the student, various IT staff within the school or the school board, and a list of other possibilities. Heck, the IT admin could easily create phantom accounts with all-access rights and prance around in computers of students, then vanish without a trace if they were even half diligent at erasing log files and covering their traces. Think of it this way, everyone within the school has access to your entire computer without you knowing it and they can hide any evidence that they were ever there, while taking anything they’d like.

Sound creepy? It should be.

Just think of the possibilities for misuse. Would you hand over unrestricted access to your computer for 30 minutes to a complete stranger so they could dig around your files, check out all the websites you visited, how long you were on those sites, and put any files they felt like onto your computer? Probably not. Now what if you were a 21 year old woman taking chemical engineering at university and have a professor who is always getting a little too suggestive with you. Maybe they’ve been touching your arm a little too often, told you how they wished you’d wear more low cut shirts to class, or even outright tried to bribe you with better grades to go on a “date” with them.

Just imagine that this person now has unrestricted access to your computer. They can turn on your webcam anytime they’d like, take full recordings of your microphone at all times, see everything you do on that computer, and view all of your files, even copying them to their own computer at will – all without your knowledge. How would you feel if your boyfriend came over at 9pm one evening. You’re in the middle of working on your thesis paper, and he pops in to catch the season finale of that show you’re watching together. After the two of you have some relations, meanwhile your laptop is sitting on the desk across the room with the screen off & locked, yet still in plain sight of your bed. Then, you find out that your teacher could have been watching through your webcam without you having any idea. That’s absolutely terrifying.

But it’s not just perverted ways this could be used. True story, when I was in the 8th grade my younger brother was in the 5th grade. My parents were just starting a VERY messy divorce, and my father had just started dating my brother’s 5th grade teacher. Yes, you have that right. My dad was dating my brother’s CURRENT 5th grade teacher only months after him and my mother announced their separation. This was over 25 years ago now, but think about if it happened today. My dad’s girlfriend would have unfettered access to my brother’s computer (and potentially mine too, as I was in the same school at the time), where she’d be able to listen in, watch, and check out everything that was happening on that computer. Maybe while me and my brother were at my mother’s house. She could listen in, collect information and pass it along to my father all in secret.

Then there’s the issue of child predators. These devices have open webcams and microphones into the bedrooms of school children. Your 8 year old who takes virtual classes at that awesome little home school desk you setup in their bedroom leaves their Chromebook on their desk outside of school hours, but that device is a portal into their room. I won’t even begin to expand on this.

Just Tell Me How To Delete It.

Here’s the thing. You probably can’t. But you can do a few things to limit it’s reach. Easiest of all is to completely power off the device whenever it’s not being used. I don’t mean put the computer to sleep, I mean a complete power off. For most computers this is easiest achieved by a “start > power > shutdown” sequence, or simply holding the power button for about 5 seconds straight until all lights turn off. For more advanced users who are forced to install this on their own personal computers, you could consider running the program in a dedicated VM of Linux and or Win10. You can usually limit the VM instance as to what system resources it has access to, which would be a super awesome little tactic, but certainly not something that would be available to 98% of possible users.

Otherwise, you’re basically left with a portal into your digital life.

What’s The Solution?

Sadly for many people there isn’t a great one. This is typically something that is “required to take part in the class, otherwise you don’t qualify”. Don’t like it, tough luck, you fail. The best option is clearly running it in a VM and restricting it’s ability to interact with all hardware resource, but it’ll still have the ability to record your every action while using the VM for schoolwork. If I was put in this position, I would run a VM and only interact with the software for the most essential reasons, meanwhile I’d be doing my actual work on my own computer while the virtual machine lays basically dormant as a window in my taskbar that can’t access my webcam or microphone, let alone see what I’m actually doing on my main computer.

Other than that, I would strongly advocate that you raise awareness among your fellow students, parents, and teachers. The reality is that a vast majority of the teachers don’t have any clue they have this sort of access and would probably be appalled at the potential invasion of privacy it grants them. They just want to teach someone how to solve a trigonometry problem, not commit a federal crime if it was done by anyone else in this world. Tell your friends, fight back, and raise awareness of the implications having this program installed on your computer, or that of that of a family member, loved one, or just ANYONE has.

The reach of software is getting completely out of hand and we are endlessly inundated with user agreements that are 200 pages long, written in language nearly impossible to digest (surely a coincidence), and given a nice big “ACCEPT” button which we’ve been trained to click on in a nanosecond without even knowing what we’re agreeing to. Yes, remote leaning software is needed, and it’s an incredibly valuable tool. The ability for a teacher to take control of the students’ computer and guide them through something is amazing when they can’t stand beside them in real life. Sure, there’s cases where it’s needed that a teacher see their remote student. It’d be helpful if the teacher could drop a file into the students’ computer for them to access.

However, what this program does is beyond that. It does these things without consent or knowledge. The teacher should only be able to “request” access to the webcam or microphone. They should only be able to drop files into a specific folder and only have access to read files in a specific folder. They should only be able to access the computer during the time in which they are teaching the student with “afterhours” access specifically logged and justified. Screen recordings of the teachers’ actions on a student computer should be recorded in full detail (video feed of the transmission) and maintained for no less than 5 years (hey, storage is cheap, make it 10 years), with the student able to access all of these records to review the actions taken by their teacher at any time.

We already have cameras in school rooms which I find both comforting and incredibly invasive all at the same time. However this type of monitoring of a educator is something that I find completely acceptable as it has nothing to do with what they are teaching, but only to do with how they interact with a student’s device.

What do you think? Is this too far reaching? Or is it not enough? I’d like to hear your opinion.

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