Police and Seaholm administration deny rumors of Wi-Fi wiretapping, but experts confirm its possibility
By: Asher Leukhardt
Seaholm Administration along with the Birmingham Police have denied the allegation that they are working in tandem with one another, or alone, to monitor student electronic activity using the Seaholm High School’s Wi-Fi system, or any other method.
The rumors have been spreading throughout the school within the last couple of weeks.
“A lot of people are saying that the school or the Birmingham Police can tap our Wi-Fi,” junior Jack Cosma said. “[They] look at, specifically, snapchats that we’ve sent and received, and also can look at what we’re doing and see pictures that we get.”
Cosma believes that this has happened in the past, but is likely not happening currently, and says it would be an invasion of privacy.
Senior Izzy Nickoloff believes these allegations to an extent, and thinks other people should weigh the evidence more for themselves.
“People don’t tend to look through the specific circumstances of stuff. They just hear what they hear and go with that, which is problematic,” Nickoloff said. “It’s natural to for people to listen to that and not figure out what’s going on.”
Nickoloff doesn’t believe that the school would be capable of seeing snapchats.
“People should be more aware and find out what actually happened before spreading rumors like this.”
One sophomore, who prefers to remain anonymous, asserted that an email was sent to students and their parents, alerting them that the school was working with law-enforcement to initiate monitoring activities. They were unable to produce the document.
Assistant principal Ali Hamka denies these allegations.
“It’s illegal for us to do that,” Hamka said. “They’re alleging something with no proof that it is even true.”
He also denounced the claim than an email had been sent outlining this action.
“There was no email sent to communicate that the school was working in tandem with the Birmingham Police,” Hamka said.
Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence denied the rumors also.
“For the record, the Birmingham Police Department has not monitored any transmissions on the Seaholm High School Wi-Fi system,” Clemence said.
According to an expert in the field, the concept behind this action isn’t all too lofty.
An anonymous professor at a local university, who has a doctorate degree in Computer Engineering, said it would be possible for this to occur.
“If your administration were collaborating with the police department, it would be possible for the police department to monitor your email and other communication,” the professor said. “Just technically, if someone wants to share their own Wi-Fi communication with another entity, they could do so.”
The professor said the feat could be accomplished with only a modest amount equipment, software and skill, but emphasizes that this doesn’t necessarily mean it occurred.
Seaholm High School’s TOA Jason Wilt seems to concur with this notion.
“Once you’re on our network, yeah, we can monitor you,” Wilt said.
For his reasoning, Wilt pointed to the school technology acceptable use agreement, which students must agree to in order to use technology in school.
“The use of District Technology is a privilege and with that privilege, I have no expectation for privacy (i.e. email, data on a workstation or server, network communications, internet use, telephone, voice mail, etc.). I understand that my use of this technology can be monitored electronically by District personnel at any time,” the agreement says.
Wilt interprets the Wi-Fi as part of school technology.
“You should have no expectation of privacy when you’re connected to our network,” Wilt said.
When students digitally or physically sign the document, they are also agreeing not to access social media.
“Anytime you connect to someone’s Wi-Fi, here in the school, you’re agreeing to use it for specific purposes. And in the school, it’s for education,” Wilt said.
Wilt claims not to know of the alleged events.
“I have no knowledge that we’re collecting any information or working with any police entities—none of that’s ever come to me, once, ever,” Wilt said.
Wilt admitted that these decisions and actions could still have occurred without his knowledge whatsoever, saying that it would not necessarily go through him.
Wilt believes that while the district could monitor certain aspects of certain transmissions, they couldn’t necessarily see as much as the rumors claim.
“I could understand them knowing if you’re going to Facebook or Instagram, but them seeing exactly what’s uploaded? I don’t think so, no,” Wilt said. “That seems more like a police issue where the police could see some things.”
Wilt said that these actions would most likely be legal and believes that they are indeed morally justified.
“If it’s going through the school Wi-Fi, sure, it’s morally correct, because we have a responsibility to make sure that our kids are not in a harmful situation, that they are protected and aren’t doing harm to themselves or others,” Wilt said.
District policy forbids the school from acting alone to physically search a confiscated device.
“Electronic devices in district custody will not be searched or otherwise tampered with unless building administrators reasonably suspect that the search is required to discover evidence of a violation of the law or other school rules,” the policy says. “The building administrator may refer the matter to law enforcement if the violation involves an illegal activity.”
Hamka echoed these mandates.
“A public school does not have the right to go through your personal communications,” Hamka said. “There are privacy laws in place for a reason, and that’s to protect our community and our learners. I’m not Big Brother looking at this whole thing.”
Hamka said that the school would not benefit from monitoring the Wi-Fi for illicit transmissions, saying that it would be an infringement on people’s rights.
Hamka says there’s a definite difference between the school’s and the police’s role in law-enforcement.
“We’re not a police department, we’re public education,” Hamka said. “Police have to have probable cause, we have to have reasonable suspicion, which is fundamentally different. The rules are not as stringent because of school safety. Imagine if I had to get a warrant every time I have to talk to a kid about a drug.”
Hamka believes that that difference between the school’s and police’s jurisdictions is what makes it acceptable for students’ lockers or cars to be searched if illicit items are reported, but not their electronics. He said that possibly important evidence on a student’s personal electronic device is only obtained with the consent of the student, and that they cannot and will not search a student’s device.
“We’re not in the business of catching kids, we’re in the business of education,” Hamka said.
While Seaholm may not be in the business of catching kids, local law enforcement is.
According to the Wiretapping Act, law enforcement, including the Birmingham Police Department, could legally tap your cell phone once having receiving a wiretap warrant from a judge.
This ability raises questions on legal rights of minors and students.
Nickoloff, a student currently taking AP Government, believes that these actions would be legal.
“They have the ability to do that under the law. It’s ok,” Nickoloff said.
She believes that issues like these should be controlled more by local policy, and don’t pertain as much to student’s constitutional rights.
“If you’re on school grounds and you’re using the Wi-Fi, it’s completely legal and protected under the law for them to do that. Technically, under the law, they’re allowed to do so,” Nickoloff said. “Of course, we don’t have full rights. The school has the right to see the things that we’re doing and regulate the things that we’re doing.”
While she does believe the actions to be legal, she doesn’t think that these actions would be necessary.
“The school totally has the power to do this stuff, but it’s not necessary. It’s a waste of time, and what we’re doing really isn’t posing a threat to anyone,” Nickoloff said. “They have better things to worry about than looking into what people are doing on their social media accounts. It seems a little ridiculous and unnecessary.”
Jack Comsa believes it to be more of a moral debate.
“It seems like an invasion of privacy,” Comsa said.
However, Comsa does believe that wiretapping may be acceptable in some situations, so long as the intent is never malevolent.
Hamka maintains that this is only a rumor and shouldn’t be treated as anything otherwise.
“They’re allegations. They’re rumors. They’re not true,” Hamka said. “I don’t know how this allegation was made. We do not have the capacity, nor do we have the right to look through people’s phones. So, I don’t know how this allegation came up that Seaholm is working with the Birmingham Police Department.”
Hamka suggested that there was a possible misunderstanding.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know where you got your facts, but I would validate them before you come forward and make that allegation,” Hamka said.