School district admits installing covert webcam activation software on student laptops, denies wrongdoing

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104 Responses to “School district admits installing covert webcam activation software on student laptops, denies wrongdoing”

  1. Anonymous says:

    When I was in school, they lent out these expensive things to students, with no cameras or high-tech security devices. They were called “books” and if you didn’t return them at the end of the year, you had to pay for them. They really didn’t think of doing that with the laptops?

  2. Brainspore says:

    All civil liberties issues aside I was surprised to read that there are public schools out there that have big enough budgets to provide laptops to their students. Is this practice now commonplace or is Pennsylvania an exception?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Looks like the previous post on this topic (http://www.boingboing.net/2010/02/17/school-used-student.html) is missing most of its final paragraph. Currently it reads:

    Schools are in an absolute panic about kids divulging too much online, worried about pedos and marketers and embarrassing photos that will haunt you when you run for office or apply for a job in 10 years. They tell kids to treat their personal details as though they were precious

    your privacy is worthless and you shouldn’t try to protect it.

    But I think it’s supposed to read:

    Schools are in an absolute panic about kids divulging too much online, worried about pedos and marketers and embarrassing photos that will haunt you when you run for office or apply for a job in 10 years. They tell kids to treat their personal details as though they were precious.

    But when schools take that personal information, indiscriminately invading privacy (and, of course, punishing students who use proxies and other privacy tools to avoid official surveillance), they send a much more powerful message: your privacy is worthless and you shouldn’t try to protect it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The ability the school had to monitor the webcams was being kept secret and only came out after the 1 boy was busted for something (someone from the same school says it was smoking pot in his room…but this is the web so take that with a grain of salt)
    First I would like to point out it is NOT the schools job, nor is it in the schools power to spy on students at home.
    Second What are the chances that they just so happen to look in on his webcam when he was doing whatever. How many other webcam were being MONITORED.
    Im sure that NONE of the people monitoring the webcams EVER happen to see some of those cute little high school girls getting undressed or even having sex.
    After all that would be illegal and we know the school would never over step its bounds.
    I say an investigation by the FBI is in order here including a forensic scan of all of the computers involved to see if there are any pictures of any of these students on them in stages of undress or worse.
    And if the FBI finds any the people responsible for those pics and the people responsible for setting up the system that allowed this to happen be Punished
    1. Fines
    2. Jail and/or Prison time
    3. Be listed on the Sexual Offenders Registry (if peeing in public is enough to land you on the list this sure as heck is too)
    4 The School Board should be SUED

  5. Anonymous says:

    The fact that the school thought that installing spyware on a laptop issued to a child is acceptable disgusts me.

    That they could also take images via the webcam is grossly inappropriate.

    And to top it off… the school believes it did nothing wrong!

  6. greggman says:

    You can see this stuff in action on the latest frontline documentary, “Digital Nation”

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/view/

    At about the 33 minute mark

  7. ADavies says:

    Ah the old, “thurough review of existing policies”, that should sort things right out. Maybe someone should send them #14′s suggestion.

    And thanks to #21 for the local reality check. Fair enough. But it’s creepy enough to know that the surveilence tools were in place.

    Apparently parents didn’t know about them either, so it’s not only the kid being spied on.

  8. chgoliz says:

    What would have happened if the remote activation showed the parents smoking pot (in the privacy of their own home) instead of the student?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Download Zonealarm firewall, it instantly blocks ANY program from accessing the internet, unless you give it permission. Wait for a suspicious program to pop up, and click DENY, then you won’t have any problems. Yay firewalls!

  10. Purly says:

    Yeah, those pedos weren’t using it to spy on kids for other purposes, I’m sure.

    • knappa says:

      I’d just like to point out that this whole thing is bad even if they aren’t pedophiles. We really have no evidence that they are anything but control freaks. Anyway, if they really wanted naked pics, they could have put the cameras in the locker rooms; you’ve got a much better chance at seeing nudity there and a single fight could provide a “legitimate” excuse.

      • AnthonyC says:

        “Anyway, if they really wanted naked pics, they could have put the cameras in the locker rooms; you’ve got a much better chance at seeing nudity there and a single fight could provide a “legitimate” excuse.”

        Unlikely. There’s not really any nudity in middle or high school locker rooms. People in underwear, yes, but not nude, except maybe after some high school sports team practices.

        • knappa says:

          I think that if they were actual pedophiles, lots of underwear pics with occasional nudity would be preferable to what would mostly be pics of fully clothed kids surfing the web.
          Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that the discussion on last post on this issue seemed to degenerate into a unsubstantiated pedo-panic. The thing that particularly worries me is that people seemed only concerned about possible pedophilia, not the secret cameras installed in students homes. As if it would somehow be all right if only the people secretly monitoring the students were fine, upstanding citizens.

  11. mdh says:

    and deny that it was misused.

    used = misused

  12. elix says:

    As it’s already been pointed out on Fark and (I presume) many other discussions on this situation, the letter is complete BS. Consider:

    “This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.”

    Yet, this came to light because, so the initial allegations go, a student was hauled in for discipline for something unspecified they did at home that the vice-principal felt was inappropriate, and a still from the laptop’s webcam was produced as evidence. The details of what this student was doing are, to my knowledge, not known, but unless the student had stolen the laptop then according to their own policies the thing damn well has been misused. IANAL so I won’t attempt to claim I know anything about what sort of wiretapping/privacy laws this may break.

    So, unless the student had stolen a classmate’s laptop, or the original allegations of producing a webcam still are false, I’m calling epic lying bullshit on this school.

  13. Anonymous says:

    New use for the stick-on gold star.

  14. JonStewartMill says:

    This admission will be very useful for the prosecution in Dr. Christopher W. McGinley’s inevitable criminal trial.

    • flatfive says:

      Precisely. What kind of rube attorney let the superintendent (defendant) issue a letter to the parents (plaintiffs) after the lawsuit was filed?

  15. Anonymous says:

    Who knew that Big Brother would turn out to be a bunch of idiot school administrators?

  16. Anonymous says:

    Now this is what you call dumbness i mean if it’s at school then fine but at home thats just out of order they might be saying things that they might not want you to here
    i’m a student in tear 9 and i think this is horrible :-( not nice

  17. Heartfruit says:

    @elix I agree, if the student stole another students laptop or even reported his own laptop stolen when it wasn’t, then I will forgive the use of the feature. Although I still feel the students should have been told about this feature when they were issued the laptops.

    • tizroc says:

      Heartfruit, you did notice that this came to light because a student was being punished for something he did in the privacy of his home. That this student wasn’t punished for theft, but was punished for inappropriate behavior at home. No amount of back peddling should get them out of this.

  18. takeshi says:

    Sued? I can think of at least ten criminal charges that apply here. Whoever activated this “security feature” should be forbidden from touching a computer for at least a decade.

  19. Stooge says:

    I don’t see why everyone’s assuming the school’s done something wrong. Since when do vague, scary allegations by plaintiffs in a lawsuit automatically acquire the status of gospel truth?
    Sure, it’s been characterised as spyware and covert webcam activation, but in all likelihood the school simply installed off the shelf laptop recovery software which takes a couple of snapshots every few hours and mails them to a sysadmin, and possibly a service provider’s archive server. Software like this is far from ideal for ‘nefarious’ uses because it deliberately leaves a broad audit trail.
    Does anyone know for a fact that the school didn’t activate the software solely on laptops reported lost or stolen?

  20. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps the discussion should include potential liability of the publisher and or vendor providing the software used by the school?

  21. Anonymous says:

    Surely this is criminal, and the school or whoever permitted this should have criminal proceedings brought against them, not just a civil suit. Heads should bloody roll! Seriously, isn’t bugging and eavesdropping against the law?

  22. zio_donnie says:

    either there is nothing wrong with this “feature” so the school should neither block it or apologize

    OR

    this “feature” is all kinds of wrong (ranging from privacy to perv. abuse) and who made the decision to deploy and use it is liable.

    since half assed excuses are being pronounced i bet that this matter is at least in a grey area and the school is by no means fully covered.

    i have no sympathy for the geniuses behind the spycams. they should be prosecuted to the fullest possible extent. they spied kids in their own fkin rooms and wanted to teach them a lesson? well being sued to oblivion will teach them a lesson the will never forget.

  23. Anonymous says:

    The ‘security’ excuse is a farce. The laptop would have had been signed out to a student (just like a textbook or library book) and if it was missing or damaged, then the student would have had to pay to replace it. Just as if the student had lost a textbook or library book.

    There was never any reason to have this ‘security feature’ activated.

    Every person involved with this introduction to 1984 should be fired and never allowed to work in a school again.

  24. MarkC123 says:

    I haven’t read all the comments, but has anyone considered the possibility that the image did not come from the students laptop? It is entirely possible that the student in question took a picture of himself engaged in ‘improper conduct’ and posted it to a social networking site (rememeber Micahel Phelps and the bong incident). If this is the case, the student may have claimed the school took the picture without his/her knowledge in order to confuse the issue and throw blame elsewhere.

  25. Anonymous says:

    since i got a web cam, i have always had tape on it!

  26. Anonymous says:

    This is just wrong all around. Even if the program was intended to locate lost/stolen computers, there is only way they could have determined it’s location by looking at a picture taken from a web cam and that would have been if they put a sign that read “YOU ARE HERE…123 MAIN ST-ANYTOWN, USA”. Secondly it is of no business to school officials what the children are doing “around” the computer, it is only their business what they do while on the computer.

    And to those of you out there that still seem to think this is ok, think about this. Remember when you were a teenager and what you did in the privacy of your own bedroom, and even more remember what you may have done while your parents were out of the house? You know you have all done something of a “private nature” at one time of another and these children have and most likely are doing the same things and this could or may have been viewed by these sums while they had these computers turned on.

    Hope the FBI does a full investigation and ANYONE that viewed these images are fully prosecuted!

  27. Wardish says:

    Lets see, school says:
    “for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop” and that the district “never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.”

    However…

    The case, Blake J. Robbins v. Lower Merion School District, was filed after one of the school’s vice principals disciplined Robbins’ son for “improper behavior in his home,” using a photo taken from the camera as evidence, according to the filing.

    Hmmmm “Improper behavior in his home” Evidence is a photo from the camera.

    Interesting definition of “lost, stolen or missing laptop” considering it was at the boy’s house.

    And for all the nice folks out there, don’t forget the microphone.

    • Anonymous says:

      according to reports, the child had checked out a laptop for use at school but did not have permission to take it home, which in fact he did. thus it was deemed stolen.

      however, the camera is not needed to locate a laptop. wifi triangulation is all you need to locate it. or how about a call to the parents to say “hey so little Billy checked out a computer for in school use and didn’t turn it in at the end of the day. We need to know if he has it there at home and if so, we need your assurance that he’ll bring it back tomorrow or you will have to pay the cost of replacement”
      Dad says “yeah I just walked upstairs and he has it. He misunderstood and thought that he was checking it out for in school and at home. I’ll drive him to work myself tomorrow and make sure he brings it back. So sorry about that.”
      “Thank you for your help.”

      done. no camera

  28. Moriarty says:

    The kid should have called the police right there in the principal’s office. “I’m being detained by a pedophile.”

  29. Anonymous says:

    So at least two people (likely many more) in Lower Merion Pa had access to essentially hidden spycams in the bedrooms of 2800 14-17 year old teens and none of the potential victims had any idea for over a year. There is likely no way of knowing if and how many times this power was abused. Likely the parents have no idea who has had access to live pics from within their teens room. The school admins still don’t seem to have grasped the magnitude of their stupidity. This story is breathtaking.

  30. Wardish says:

    Does make one wonder if anyone used it to satisfy their kiddy porn perv.

    Wonder if they have records of it’s use, and if not should everyone with access be prosecuted for kiddy porn. After all they had access to it.

    The only privacy we seem to have in this country is what you can afford, and it’s not cheap.

  31. kyle.flanegin says:

    This is very very very very wrong. I am an 11th grader and am actually on my school netbook with a digital livecam and I am freaking out!

    I would wipe the hard drive, install linux, but the problem with many of these computers is that there is a very strict internet filter along with almost everything being disabled.

    Funny to mention that I can not use the webcam in any way because I cannot download skype or any software to actually use the camera….hmmm wonder why its there.

  32. Pipenta says:

    Methinks the administrator is goin’ down hard. It will be educational for him.

    And although civics classes have fallen out of fashion for a generation or three, this whole thing will spark some interesting discussions inside and outside of school, eh?

  33. Anonymous says:

    These webcam covers have been shipping since 2006:

    http://www.theipatch.com/

  34. Anonymous says:

    “… and that the images of a student engaged in “misconduct” in his home that a vice-principal confronted the student with had been taken by the student, intentionally, and stored on the laptop’s hard-drive, from which it was retrieved by the school administration…”

    that sentence made my head hurt.

  35. tuffgong says:

    Michael Perbix’s video conference that the Yahoo article refers to is on youtube here http://www.youtube.com/user/littlebrother0023#p/u/0/z5M_vESzIRs . Extremely enlightening and chilling, and coming from the computer systems operator of this school district, so it doesn’t get any closer. Much more technical than the Frontline piece, although that was enlightening as well.

  36. andygates says:

    We really need to know the product – to see if it has robust access controls and audit logs – before declaring it trivially abusable.

    However, regardless of technical details #8 Wardish is correct: this was misuse, outside the “narrow scope” and overstepping the bounds of school responsibility.

    And of course, it’s obliterated trust in school laptops everywhere, for ever.

  37. mzaun says:

    This is the very reason I want my kids to know everything they can about computer software/hardware, security, and programming. So, they know and understand all the dangers of the Internet and know how to handle it.

    It is hard to believe this is happening, but can be seen with the way our schools are going these days.

  38. Anonymous says:

    Kids of all ages, learn the great and mystic secret of putting a spot of electrical tape over that damned camera. Problem solved.

    That is, do it on a computer you do not own. On my personal computer at home, I drilled it out. Yes, DRILLED. Never wanted the thing anyways, and was hard-pressed to get a decent laptop without one. Can’t turn the damned Comcast off, now can I? And really, does anyone want to see me without makeup, doing a crossword puzzle and/or rubbing myself while staring at a picture of John Stamos? No, you do not. So go ahead, don’t kill your television, kill the camera.

  39. Anonymous says:

    yeah…see it’s scary because I graduated from Lower Merion High School in 2006. Talk about creepy on the home front.

  40. wygit says:

    IF the district’s explanation isn’t total BS, and IF the webcam was activated after a reported theft, we kind of have a different situation here.

    The school seems to be saying this is a case of theft, not of monitoring students. I was talking to a friend about this, and his first response was “When I was in High School, if the school had given out 1800 laptops, half would have been reported stolen and sold for drugs.”

    There has to be more to this than what the school is claiming.

    I have iAlertU on my Macbook.
    iAlertU, when armed, takes a webcam snapshot of anyone who touches the keyboard or moves the laptop and emails the photo to a preassigned address.
    Now it uses the setup where I have to trigger it either with the keyboard or the Apple Remote, but I can certainly see having a setup for remote activation.

    If I DID have remote activation, and the laptop was stolen, and I got the photo of the thief, would I get sued by the thief and his family?

    From the linked story, “If true, this sounds more reasonable, but it’s still a bit creepy. The district has disabled the feature.”

    If it’s true, I don’t think it’s creepy at all.

    Personally, I have doubts about the school’s statement.

    • Anonymous says:

      The big difference here is that the school did not disclose that the software was installed on the machines. It’s all well and good to point out an example of installing software on your own machine, but YOU made that choice. In a lot of buildings that have video surveillance, they’re required to notify guests by law that they will be monitored.

  41. wrwetzel says:

    Better ways to accomplish security. Adeona comes to mind:

    http://adeona.cs.washington.edu/

    Have the student install it. If the laptop is stolen the student can activate it, not the administration. The student retains full control of privacy. The administration accomplished its ostensible goal of theft identification while still preserving student privacy.

    Bill

  42. wygit says:

    A LITTLE more information here:

    http://www.ajc.com/news/nation-world/official-tells-ap-fbi-314185.html

    “A law-enforcement official with knowledge of the case says the FBI has opened a criminal investigation into a Pennsylvania school district accused of activating webcams inside students’ homes without their knowledge.”

    “A Pennsylvania school district says it remotely activated webcams 42 times to find missing student laptops, but never did so to spy on students, as a lawsuit claims.

    Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young says the district recovered 28 of those laptops over 14 months. The others remain missing. The district has about 2,300 student laptops.”

    • Anonymous says:

      @wyget

      If the FBI was seriously investigating, there would have been no announcement before they came and seized control of the district’s technology assets (to prevent evidence-tampering before forensic inspection). What we have is a whitewash.

      One or two low-level employees may take a fall, but the administrators and top IT staffers at the center of the situation will in all likelihood get off scot-free. (“We were not aware that these rogue employees overstepped their bounds.”)

    • Science_Boy says:

      It is probably too late now because they have had time to destroy the evidence, but the very first thing that should have been done would be to get a warrant and seize the computer the school used to control the laptops. I can easily imagine that the most common thing for all the kids to do would be to use the laptops in their bedrooms and leave them open and running. The school could easily have captured pictures of young students undressed in their own bedrooms. Pedophiles are always worming their way into positions of authority over children just for opportunities like this.

  43. tuffgong says:

    The company that owns the LANrev remote-activation software allegedly used by Lower Merion no longer promotes its use for anti-theft purposes.

    “Webcam pictures are not useful in tracking down the culprit,” said Stephen Midgely, vice president of global marketing for Absolute Software, which recently bought the LANrev software. The user in the picture is often not the person who stole the computer, and the photos are usually inadmissible in court, he said.

    Nonetheless, a Lower Merion network technician marveled at LANrev’s theft-tracking potential in a May 2008 MacEnterprise.org webcast.

    “Fantastic feature — I can’t speak highly enough of it,” network technician Michael Perbix said, describing how the system could not only provide network address data to help police track down a missing machine but also send back screen shots and pictures from the built-in camera at regular intervals.

    Perbix said he had once used the feature to try to locate laptops mistakenly thought to be missing. “By the time we found out they were back, I had to turn the tracking off and I had a good 20 snapshots of the teacher and students using the machines in the classroom,” he said.

    According to Rotenberg, those photographs could also raise legal problems for Lower Merion, since officials have said students did not sign waivers agreeing to the hidden use of webcams.

    “The question is whether the wiretap law applies when the school tries to communicate with laptops at school. That’s a very interesting dimension in this case,” Rotenberg said.

    The American Civil Liberties Union also entered the case Monday, filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the student, arguing the alleged secret webcam activation in a home amounts to an illegal search.

    Robbins filed suit last week, alleging that Harriton officials took a photo of him inside his home in November. He said he learned of it when an assistant principal said she knew he was engaging in improper behavior at home. According to Haltzman, the supposed pills were actually Mike and Ike candies.

    Lawyer Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., who represents the district, urged families and community members not to jump to conclusions.

    “To the extent any mistakes were made, we will make recommendations for any needed changes in policies and procedures,” Hockeimer said.

    That was from Yahoo. The FBI is now on the case. So we have Michael Perbix gushing about how he can track people, and admitting he had some extra pictures taken at one point. =In Print=. I sincerely hope other girls at this school stand up to system operators like this having this kind of power. Can we guess Michael Perbix might be homely looking, unkempt, possibly overweight, late 20′s early 30′s? This is going to freak every girl out in this school district, and the class action suit most definitely will have wings. Stick a fork in this school district, it is done, bankrupt, chapter 11, and real estate within a 50 mile radius will suffer from a school district that is bankrupt and synonymous with perverts. All because a vice principle wanted a sophomore boy busted so bad she was willing to go to any lengths possible. Classy.
    p.s. As much as the FBI likes to spy on people, they -hate- amateurs blowing their cover. It will be prosecuted.

  44. Anonymous says:

    “I don’t think it would be considered child pornography unless the images were intentionally used for a sexual purpose”

    I can’t comment on the US law here, however here in the UK simply having an image which classifies as an indecent image of a child, or an image which appears to be one of a child is enough for child porn charges to be brought.

    • Anonymous says:

      “I don’t think it would be considered child pornography unless the images were intentionally used for a sexual purpose”

      That is absolutely 100% false in the United States of America. Intent is not germane to possession.

      I have testified in a child porn case as a computer expert. The only defense possible was that the computer containing the illicit images was not under the control of the owner (in reality, it had been infested by porn distributors riding a worm). That defense only worked because the police completely bungled their forensics and proveably destroyed evidence, which turned the jury against them.

      Personally, I strongly suspect anyone in favor of video surveillance of minors to be a paedophile. Socially accepted authority figures using their positions to satisfy paedophilia is probably as old as humanity. They are drawn to child care, for obvious reasons, and you are more likely to find a paedo in a school, a church, a medical office, or a scout troop than anywhere else.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        you are more likely to find a paedo in a school, a church, a medical office, or a scout troop than anywhere else.

        I believe that you are even more likely to find one across the hall, in your parents’ bedroom.

  45. Anonymous says:

    You can view a clip of this in action here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vza_bMuy42M

  46. legionabstract says:

    I’d be very interested in knowing where the school gets off punishing students for something they do in the privacy of their own homes. I mean, never mind how the school knows about it in the first place; since when is it the school’s job to police the students’ homes?

  47. tuffgong says:

    I’m also really curious, how can you get busted for pills on a webcam. Can you really see the oxycontin markings on a cut in half pill? It doesn’t look like aspirin? Mike and Ike pills (if the picture shows red or green, expect a megamillion judgement), so i’m guessing she was thinking Vicodin? With webcam resolution? Seriously what was the school district smoking thinking that they had a case? This lady wanted this kid personally, this was personal for some really pathetic reason. Hopefully after the 2nd or 3rd court hears it (I smell a Supreme Court Case), we’ll figure out what really happened.

  48. fastolfe says:

    I think it’s far more plausible that the student saved this snapshot himself and the school was just digging through files. This is still an invasion of privacy and the school district (and the administrators who looked through the files) deserve what’s coming to them.

    The fact that there is software installed on these laptops capable of taking snapshots with the webcam is uninteresting to me; any decent theft recovery software (e.g. Undercover for Mac) will have this feature. If these are still “school laptops”, where the students can’t be trusted to not sell their laptops to pawn shops, then it’s reasonable for the school to retain control. Is there any evidence that these two things are even connected? Possibly just the word of a youth caught doing something embarrassing and not wanting to admit that he took the snapshot intentionally?

  49. Anonymous says:

    this is just messed up

  50. john smith says:

    If this is not the child pornography then believe me this is the start of this. I think parents should take care of their children. I think government should play a role here and put some restrictions on such kind of devices.

  51. Anonymous says:

    The only privacy we seem to have in this country is what you can afford, and it’s not cheap.

    @Wardish

    The thing that bodes well for the students in this case is that Lower Merion is one of the wealthiest suburbs in Pennsylvania. The people that send their children to Lower Merion schools “can afford” a great deal of privacy and I’m sure the lawyers retained in this case are some of the best that money can buy. It wouldn’t surprise me if the most of the parents in this case are senior partners at large law firms as it is and can bring to bear the legal teams of those law firms with little direct cost to themselves.

    If I were the administrators I’d be preparing my resignation letters.

  52. Ugly Canuck says:

    Outrageous further details now revealed :-0
    Hundreds of fotos taken of children at home:

    http://www.geekosystem.com/webcam-spying-lower-marion-school/

    Creepy creepy, some authorities.

  53. Anonymous says:

    Here is good video clip showing this type of remote laptop monitoring in a New York school, via the recent PBS Frontline Digital Nation which aired recently. (though in this case the kids are not at home–still creepy though)

    @part 4, 33:37
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/view/

    The whole documentary is not bad if you’re interested, though a little dramatic at times.

  54. Anonymous says:

    The sad thing here is, even though the school totally deserves to be sued, it is the students who will suffer from any financial judgement. They would be taking money away from a school that is probably suffering the same financial troubles the rest of the schools in this country are suffering.

  55. Ugly Canuck says:

    Sorry, I meant “thousands”, not “hundreds”.

  56. Anonymous says:

    I still don’t understand what a kid could have done in the privacy of their own home that would have gotten them called into the principal’s office. That alone boggles the mind.

    As for the webcam, well, that’s why I keep a sticker over mine. It was only a matter of time before something like this came up.

    • AlexG55 says:

      Apparently. the kid was eating Mike & Ike (jelly-bean-type candy, for those of us not in the USA). The person spying on him thought he was popping pills. Most schools will punish a student for taking illegal drugs outside school hours…

  57. Anonymous says:

    If my kids were involved I’d want a search of the hard drives and removable media of all Pc’s accessible by anyone with the ability to turn the cameras on. Given how many kids use laptops in their bedrooms, I guarentee there are shots of nude or partially nude teens stashed somewhere. (Particularly if the laptops had ‘wake on lan’ enabled)

  58. Anonymous says:

    What right does the scool district have to police the behavior of students in their own home. If I’m not mistaken the second a child enters a parents vehicle or their front door they are no longer the responsibility of the school. That being the case, how can the school district punish a student for something he did in the privacy of his own home. Isn’t that what parents are for. If this was my kid I would be absolutely outraged. What right do they have to spy in their students homes. How many times have one of those webcams caught female students undressing or god know what else. This is a very big deal and I believe the parties responsible should be made an example of, as to let other districts who may be considering the same thing know that it will not be tolerated. They do not own our children…

  59. Anonymous says:

    A public school district has no right to monitor a child when a child is not in the school.

    Everyone is entitled to constitutional rights, and a reasonable expectation of privacy shouldn’t even be question in the child’s home, regardless of ownership of the computer.

    Take the example of a landlord tenant dispute. Even though the landlord may own the property, the tenant until lawfully evicted has full rights to privacy on the property, and the landlord may not enter unless invited for any reason.

    But I am not surprised to see that I sort of had to dig this up. This should be cause of a national uproar. But people are sitting back quietly watching as their rights get eroded time and time again by a government that disregards the constitution and all the rights it grants the people, and all the limitations it poses on the government, all in the name of “common good.”

    Look all around you guys… we are not a free nation anymore

  60. dainel says:

    If they had remote access to the notebooks, they could turn on the webcam, snap photos, or do whatever. It does not need to be software designed specifically to spy using the webcam.

    If you have any software on your computer that auto updates, that is a big security hole there. One of the updates could install something that allows remote access to your machine. And with that, someone else could spy on you. Many of us have lots of programs on our computers. One of these companies could have their server hacked, and compromised.

    The webcam I have at home, I flip it down when not in use, with the lens facing the table. A little tape takes care of the notebook’s webcam.

  61. Anonymous says:

    Creepy!

    A few months ago there was a virus which carried with it a way to turn on people’s webcam without the PC owner knowing about it. A word of caution to PC user: when your cam is not in use, unplug it. It’s not a big deal to plug it back in if you have to use your video cam.

  62. Anonymous says:

    i think they was spying on them and i dont think they told the students or the parent they should have sent premission slip to see if it was alright to put it on it and what if a kid got undress infront of the webcam and they saw it their probaly some kids that did so and it inveasion of privitcy and what the kid do at home that their business they have little of no right to do so

  63. Anonymous says:

    If I ran a school, the notebooks would never have tracking software except for accessibility purposes, and it would be head-tracking software.
    The OS would be Edubuntu 10.04, with a Ghost image being pushed, and the Ghost image would have eViaCam as standard.
    This would be helpful for disabled students who can only move their head. The standard Ubuntu distro would be on custom CDs with a preseed file that partitions the HDD in two so that the Edubuntu partition is using as close to half as possible, and then asks for the username and password and defaults to not requiring the password to decrypt but requiring it to log on. This would be helpful for them because they will be at ease that they are not tracked.

  64. Nater says:

    Hang on, wasn’t this all in a book by some scifi writer??

    Teehee, I reckon the designer of the spycam system got the idea from Little Brother, which by the way was a great read.

  65. Anonymous says:

    They are now going to have to explain why serveral students have reported seeing the cam light come on randomly.

    And this is not neccessary to track down stolen computers. Lojack for Laptops, for example, just traces the IP address.

  66. DManIL says:

    If I read this correctly, these are school-owned laptops that students may take home. If they belong to the school then the school has the right to do whatever it deems necessary to safeguard their use.

    How many parents would sue the school district if using the laptop, their child was engaging in online sex and sexual chatting or worse, trading nude or semi-nude pictures with their peers?

    The mistake was in failing to disclose. I would have plastered the school with notices. Students will one day grow up and be employed in a world where their employer owns their laptop used at home. And doing so. the employer has every right to monitor activities engaged in while using their laptop. The difference is I knew that when I received the laptop and had to sign an agreement acknowleding it.

    • Stooge says:

      DManIL, according to the school district, they weren’t monitoring the students, they were only monitoring the laptops once they had been reported lost or stolen. If that’s true, would there be any need to notify the students or their parents beforehand? To put it another way, if I loan you a car, do I have any obligation to tell you it’s got a LoJack transceiver fitted?

      • Nelson.C says:

        How do you monitor the laptop using the in-built camera? No such camera I’ve seen points at the laptop itself.

        • Stooge says:

          Nelson.C, it’s monitoring in the sense that it’s trying to ascertain the location and in whose possession the laptop is. All the laptop recovery software I’ve ever seen does tries to take a snapshot of the user: if your laptop was stolen, wouldn’t you like to have the possibility of getting it back?

    • Ugly Canuck says:

      They have NO RIGHT until you sign & agree to them doing so: not “every right”.

      Impressive: contradicting yourself in two sentences like that.

      ‘Stooge’, huh?

  67. Anonymous says:

    Sometimes I read these comments and they make me crazy. Everyone needs to slow down before they pass uninformed judgment. The first news reports would have you believe that teachers were remotely accessing students’ laptops willy-nilly and that they had the capability to watch some high schoolers doing things in their bedrooms. This isn’t the case. Firstly, EVERY student and teacher that works and goes to school in Lower Merion and who is assigned a laptop is made aware and signs a release stating their rights of use. EVERYTHING that is done on these computers is the property of Lower Merion High School. Every email, every document, every chat. These computers are NOT for personal use and everyone knows that. Now, it may be naive to think that high schoolers aren’t going to use gmail on these computers, but that’s the way it is. These computers are meant to be a constant link to school. Where you can always access the curriculum and your class work. Where you can upload homework to your teachers and receive info from your classes.

    Now, regarding the webcam issue. There are ONLY two times when these cameras are turned on remotely. When the computers are reported lost or stolen. And for those of you who think this can’t possibly help to recover the laptops. 18 of the 44 reportedly lost or stolen laptops have been recovered using this device so far. One was even recovered from the Far East. How great is that. Now from what I hear, this kid reported his laptop as stolen, even though it wasn’t. In fact, it was in his bedroom and he was using it. Whatever conclusions you pull from that are your own. So, when a computer is reported lost or stolen, the tech department sends a signal to the computer to do certain things as a way of helping to recover the laptop. As soon as the computer is turned on and booted up, the webcam takes still shots of whoever is in front of that computer.

    The computer itself also takes note of anything going on internally at that moment that could help identify the location of the computer. Why is this so stunning to people to read? The computer was reported stolen by this student. Retrieval measures were put in place that where able to find out that the same kid who reported his computer as stolen was in fact still using it. The camera also captured the kid doing something “improper”, although what he was doing is the worst kept secret around school, and it wasn’t candy. But here’s where the school district went wrong. What they should have done is called the police to go recover their stolen property. The “improper behavior” isn’t the schools business when done at home, although they are put in a tough spot since they’re required to notify a guardian of any knowledge of wrong-doing. Instead, the assistant principal, who is really only a messenger in this whole debacle and a child advocate by all accounts, decided to do something which I consider responsible. She called this kid’s parents and the boy into a meeting to discuss this and other past behavior. She confronted them with a picture of him in possession of the stolen property while partaking in some “afternoon relaxation techniques.” My parents, I’m pretty sure, would be pissed at me and thank the assistant principle for making these things known so that they can then punish me in their own way.

    Instead, these wonderful parents, who don’t seem to be pissed at their son for trying to steal a laptop and smoking pot, have decided to throw a class action lawsuit at the school district, district board, superintendent, and a few others.

    • Anonymous says:

      So it’s okay to break the law to enforce the law? Aside from that, having a camera activate is NOT a good way to determine where a laptop is currently located. There are dozens of other far more accurate ways to do this, either with software or hardware.

      Surveillance is not a justifiable reason here.

    • grimc says:

      Anon #77, you’re making a whole lot of claims that no news story has reported.

      - The ‘release’ you mention is called a “memorandum of understanding” by the school district, and it’s signed by the parents, not the student.

      - The school district has admitted that the security feature is not “clearly explained” in the memorandum.

      - There has been no claim by the school that the laptop was reported as stolen.

      - It’s highly unlikely that the parents would file a suit in Federal court claiming that the school took a picture of the kid eating Mike and Ikes when he was actually smoking pot, or whatever “the worst kept secret” of the Lower Merion School District is, knowing that the photo would be evidence at trial.

      @markc123

      The way the kid and parents found out is that he was called into the vice principal’s office and shown the picture.

  68. Anonymous says:

    So what is actually going on here? Are we taking as fact the school acquired these images though the school directly using the web cam, or are we saying that they found these images on the hard drives of their own property (issued laptops) that they supplied to the students?

    What should the school do in the below imaginary scenarios?

    Student posts a picture of themselves smoking a joint on their Facebook… Is it the schools responsibility to intervene?

    Student uses a laptop the school supplied to them to take a picture of themselves smoking a joint, and the school finds the picture on the hard drive. Is it the schools responsibility to intervene?

    Is the school liable for that picture of their student, since evidence of it is on a piece of school issued property?

    I think this is an issue of the school taking action on something, but also getting caught with a poorly thought out security measure.

    Much like the Chuck Norris Facebook log in for Facebook engineers to maintain and investigate account issues.

  69. Anonymous says:

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. There has been a ton of speculation thrown around with little if any actual evidence to support it. No one in fact knows whether the photo in question was taken by a remotely activated camera or was taken by the student himself and left on the computer. Until the factual details come to light, all the hysterical finger pointing and groundless allegations of pedophilia (an incorrectly applied term, incidentally, since the student is presumably a post-pubescent high school student) are just more mindless chaff clouding the issue.

    If the district was in fact remotely activating the cameras to monitor the students illegally, that is another issue. But we just don’t know yet if that is IN FACT what happened in this case….

  70. AnthonyC says:

    What, in this case, triggered the school district to take the photo? Are they monitoring what software is used or websites visited, and automatically take a photo when blacklisted or unapproved stuff is accessed? Or do they randomly take photos of students? In the former case, they might legally (not morally) have a case that they’re preventing misuse of property… though that could be done by simply blocking the content, without a photo. In the latter case, they’ve almost certainly captured photos of minors that would be illegal to possess. I certainly hope a law suit will have investigators searching the school’s servers.

  71. Anonymous says:

    If they are doing this using webcams what do you think is being done through the 50″ HDTVs in your living and bedrooms?

    • Cowicide says:

      If they are doing this using webcams what do you think is being done through the 50″ HDTVs in your living and bedrooms?

      They watch you eat Cheetos through UR TV!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111!!!!!!!11111111!!!!!!!!!!!

  72. Daemon says:

    I’m still fairly certain that this is a criminal, rather than civil, failing on the part of the school.

    They basically snuck spy cameras into the kid’s houses – and bedrooms – which in every other context would be very much a criminal offense. What’s more, they’ve admitted to using it (otherwise, no photos).

    So now they get to justify peeping on a teen. Given the joys of adolescence, it’s entirely possible they’ve also inadvertently made child-porn – especially if the system was configured to take pictures automatically, rather than on demand.

  73. pauldavis says:

    its quite a fascinating experience to finally see boingboing commenters spouting off about something that is happening in my own back yard. as i mentioned yesterday, we live in lower merion, and all 3 of our kids go (or went, in the case of our son) to high school here. i didn’t anticipate it being quite so clear that the comments about a story like this are close to meaningless, mostly on account of all that is not known.

    at this point in time, nobody outside of a few people in the school district and the student himself actually know what really took place. we’re all waiting with baited breath, and some considerable concern. but as to what really happened? i currently have no idea, and i live here. is the information in the court filing correct? we don’t know. did the vice principal lie or bend the truth? we don’t know. did the family’s lawyers do any investigation of the claims in the filing? we don’t know. was the image taken by the student and retrieved later, or not? we don’t know. did someone working for the school district initiate the image capture? we don’t know. if they did, would they have been authorized to do so? we don’t know.

    i’ve previously enjoyed back-seat punditry on blogs like boingboing, but when the idiocy of the speculation is so clear, as it seems to me in this case, the fun is gone.

    • LILemming says:

      Pauldavis:

      Allow me to ask then, did you know that the school could take covert pictures of your kids via the laptops? If not, does school’s admission that they could disturb you?

      • pauldavis says:

        i did not know, and i am very disturbed by the admission from the school district that they have this capability.

        at the present time, i don’t feel that i know whether the capability has been used for purposes other than the ones stated by the superintendent. if they have, then clearly heads deserve to roll. if they have not, someone in the IT group needs at least admonishment (perhaps worse) for proposing/implementing use of the webcam for theft recovery purposes instead of some other scheme (at least one has been mentioned in the comments already). it was an ill-informed and arguably even dangerously stupid decision even if it was never used to spy on a single student.

        i have much deeper concerns about the district’s laptop program, but these have nothing to do with the district spying on our kids.

        • KilgoreTrout XL says:

          “but when the idiocy of the speculation is so clear, as it seems to me in this case, the fun is gone”

          “if they have, then clearly heads deserve to roll. if they have not, someone in the IT group needs at least admonishment (perhaps worse) for proposing/implementing use of the webcam for theft recovery purposes instead of some other scheme (at least one has been mentioned in the comments already). it was an ill-informed and arguably even dangerously stupid decision even if it was never used to spy on a single student.”

          Hmm, that second part looks to me like a big ol’ pile of that ‘idiot speculation’ you were just pissing and moaning about.

          • pauldavis says:

            fair point. i apologize for my hypocritical speculation. in my defense, i did at least try to take into account the possibility that the reporting so far on the case may be suggesting some innaccurate interpretations, but you’re basically correct to call me out.

    • 2k says:

      oh.
      either; a refreshing and insightfull voice of sanity, clearing the choking atmosphere…
      or
      One of the most insidiously arranged incitements to shift the dicussion into the meta-topic (what can we learn from studying the discussion about this topic?”) I’ve ever seen.
      I feel dizzy. …and I don’t mean the egg.

    • tizroc says:

      I have to strongly disagree that this is meaningless. Number one if the school has spyware camera software installed on my children’s system then it would be important to let parent’s know this. It doesn’t matter what the actual use was, although how is it the schools business what a child does at home? When did it fall under the preview of the school to punish a student for activity conducted under an adult’s roof by a minor under the protection of said adult? Why wasn’t the adult(s) present for what was clearly out of their preview? Even if the student broke policy of use on the laptop taking a picture wasn’t necessary as log in names and logs could have provided the proof necessary.

      No. The actual one event known to exist is horrible but irrelevant to the other mind numbing possible misuse that could have been attributed to the laptops. Hacked and used inappropriately this could ruin a child’s life forever by spreading inappropriate pictures. There are many other nefarious uses this computer and its software and hardware could have been used for. The school district owed it to the parent’s to let them know the risk they were taking by housing the laptop in their home. I don’t see anything listed that is inappropriate. We may not know the scope of the actual use but that doesn’t mean that trusts were not violated, and when that happens subsequent discussions of potential misuse are bound to happen.

      • pauldavis says:

        the risk comes primarily from having a net-connected laptop with (or even without) a webcam in our kids private spaces. if the school district did in fact install additional software to enable remote image capture (its not clear to me that any additional software is needed to do this, but i could be wrong), then they increased the risk a little but not in any qualitative way that i could see.

        should they have asked us to sign a waiver which said “i understand that others may seek to use this laptop for nefarious purposes, and this may expose my child to…. ” ? doing so would have been honest, and perhaps wise. for myself, having been online for 26 years now, that was hardly news.

        what could be news is that the district themselves used the laptops for nefarious purposes, and my point has merely been that there are too many unknowns to really know if that is the situation right now.

  74. Anonymous says:

    What? Yes, I admit, I bought a bow and arrow. And indeed, I went out and put like fifty arrows into some random guy. But I deny that my weapon was misused.

  75. Anonymous says:

    i cant even tell you how much things like this make me so infuriated. **** the school vice principle who is an idiot to do something like that. also, when you sue, make sure the money comes from him, not us.

  76. Anonymous says:

    Wait, so they did this to “this” student? How many other students have they done this to without anyone reporting it? Have they just been randomly spying on their students? These are students! Some people leave their Macbooks on for long periods of time, even as they’re doing unrelated things! What if one of the students was undressing or doing something private during one of the times they spied on their students????

    There’s no justification for this, on top of invasion of privacy violation of rights and wiretapping laws this potentially goes into the areas of child pornography!!!!

    This is not acceptable! This is not acceptable at all. Anyone that had access to remotely viewing students through the webcams on their macbooks needs to be subjected to serious and in depth investigations regardless of whether they were responsible for this particular incident or not.

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