by Evan Kean

The Internet: it’s safe to say no other invention in history has had such a profound effect on human society and culture, allowing people to connect, communicate and learn in ways that were previously never thought possible.

Inevitably, the Internet has become an indispensable tool in schools, and Stuart is no exception. Nearly all students and faculty at Stuart rely on a connection to the Internet to do work and communicate, as well as for occasional entertainment.

To meet this growing demand for high speed Internet access, many public buildings in Fairfax County have free Wi-Fi available for all county residents. For some people, this is the only connection they have to the Internet.

Due to its prevalence, it can be easy to forget that free, public access to the Internet is a privilege provided by the county and state, and not a right.

Many students at Stuart were reminded of this privilege when FCPS switched over to a new distribution system. The new Wi-Fi system is certainly more complex than the old system: users must now go through a more in-depth sign-in procedure to establish a Wi-Fi connection, part of which can require users on a mobile device to supply their device passcode. In addition, Android users are required to install a third party app, XpressConnect, to facilitate a connection. This is a far cry from the previous FCPS Wi-Fi system that simply required a school login to sign into an access point.

The change to the current system comes amidst broad media coverage of high-profile cyber security issues: between compromised credit card information from Target and Home Depot, the Sony hacking scandal and the most recent data breach of Anthem health insurance. It seems like every week there is a new, alarming story involving an attack in cyberspace, whether it is against a company, a government or an individual. Some media outlets have dubbed 2014 “The Year of the Hack.”

This begs the question: is the new Wi-Fi a response to these issues? Although a hack or attack on a school system seems unlikely, and ultimately fruitless, this could be an example of FCPS choosing to be proactive rather than reactive to the real issues that surround it.

Some, like junior Tinh Son, think the new school Wi-Fi is technically pointless.

“It’s unnecessary for FCPS to install credential authorizations for students because most students don’t really understand the authentication process anyway, so it’s unlikely that any student at Stuart will have the ability to compromise the network, if they had direct access to it. Moreover, I feel like the security system in the Wi-Fi could be a risk to students’ privacy.”

As technology becomes more involved with peoples’ lives, privacy has become an often mentioned issue. Although this update to the security of FCPS Wi-Fi is obviously not something to be alarmed by, it is nonetheless connected to the modern debate over security vs. freedom. This is a debate that Americans have become very familiar with due to ongoing controversies surrounding the NSA and their surveillance program.

According to the Acceptable Use Policy for Student Network Access, which all students must agree with to use school Wi-Fi, “Activities on the FCPS network may be subject to discovery under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FCPS reserves the right to monitor and investigate all devices and activities on the FCPS network.”

Although having the ability to browse through personal devices and view usage history seems worrying, it is what people give up in order to hold on to the privilege of using FCPS Wi-Fi for free.

In the same section of the Acceptable Use Policy, it is written that “The information systems and Internet access available through FCPS are available to support learning, enhance instruction, and support school system business practices.” That is to say, it is for educational uses first and foremost, which senior Chris Karriagnas acknowledges.

“The school has a right to know how we use the Wi-Fi so they can know how to improve and update it. In the end, the school’s Wi-Fi is really there to help us learn.” He also didn’t mind the extra steps to log in: “All I had to do to access the new Wi-Fi was log on once, and then it never bothered me again.”

When it comes to cyber security, finding the perfect balance between keeping people safe and keeping people free is something that organizations will constantly be striving for in the future.

“In a school environment it is necessary and acceptable to compromise freedom for security, especially for something like Wi-Fi,” says senior Kabir Uddin. “Even then, however, it is unethical for a single organization to be able to completely access someone’s Internet history. Even as students, we have a right to privacy.”

Photo by Evan Kean