Laptop surveillance kid was disciplined when spying authorities mistook candies for pills

According to the lawyer for the family of the boy whose school spied on him at home through a covert webcam application on his laptop, the boy was disciplined for eating candies that bear a passing resemblance to pills.

The Lower Merion School District has admitted that the laptops it distributed to students were configured so that administrators could activate their webcams without alerting the user, but insists that the spying capability was only used to help find stolen laptops.

However, the lawyer for the Robbins family says that their son was called into the vice-principal's office and confronted with a photo secretly snapped by his laptop's webcam while he was eating Mike & Ike's candy, and he was accused of taking drugs.

The boy was charged with an undisclosed infraction based on an image the school picked up from his webcam. District superintendent Christopher W. McGinley, in an orotund statement, defends the program while canceling it. And just to make clear that we're still in high school, Master Robbins appears to have gotten in trouble when he was photographed eating Mike and Ikes.
Lower Pervian School District vs. Mike and Ikes

WebcamGate Family's Attorney: "Who Has Access" (via /.)

(Image: redthings.JPG, a Creative Commons Attribution photo from Max Kiesler's photostream)


  1. OK, this has crossed the line from ridiculous to surreal, or maybe just acquired the Kafkaesque quality that distinguishes the nightmarish from the merely horrific.

    I hope everyone involved in perpetrating this outrage gets fired and blacklisted from ever working in education again.

  2. Time for all those kids (and all kids everywhere, of course) to take tip from Johnny Mnemonic and seek a Lo-Tech solution. Might I suggest a dot of electrical tape over the camera? Works wonders, does no damage to school property, and easy to remove. Then you can eat your Mike & Ike’s in blissful glee, safe from the Candy Police.

    1. That’s exactly what one of the school administration officials said, but it doesn’t really help after the fact. The school still hasn’t explained why they were looking at his camera considering the laptop wasn’t reported stolen or missing to warrant turning it on in the first place, that’s what I’m waiting for.

    2. I’d agree with you except it makes things like rather less effective when there’s no webcam to use.

      How about we just make sure no school official is stupid enough to hijack students webcams instead?

  3. Haha this is just sad. That poor school is going to lose all its funding and the kids will end up suffering for it

  4. So, kids, now you know how to tell if your school district is spying on you: just sit in front of your school-issued, camera-equipped laptop and mime doing something flagrantly illegal. If they call you in to the principal’s office, you’ll know they were watching.

  5. Could this story possibly get more ridiculous?

    Bet some one in the school has a cute collection of kids in their underwear though.

    Mmmm… mike & ike. I always preferred Hot Tamales though.

  6. I am neither an American nor a lawyer, but my understanding is that under current U.S. law, if you are caught with sexually-themed images of e.g. teenagers, you basically get to spend the rest of your life as a “Registered Sex Offender” (even if you *are* the teenager in question). I can’t imagine they just magically happened to turn on the camera just in time to capture this one image, it’s got to be larger-scale than that. Bets on whether this surveillance program has caught at least one teenager “misbehaving”? If it has – who is liable? Is it the computer admin guy? The principal? The school board? Could all of the above wind up on the Registry? In jail for possession and distribution of child pornography? Any lawyers out there feel like commenting on this?

  7. Many questions. So many questions.

    1) What if that was his medication that you saw him taking? “Pills” = drugs? High school vice principals know better than doctors now?
    2) High school vice principals now have warrantless wiretap and prosecutorial powers? Since when?
    3) Why hasn’t the vice principal and the school’s IT administrator (who should know better) been suspended yet?

    1. >>>1) What if that was his medication that you saw him taking? “Pills” = drugs? High school vice principals know better than doctors now?

      Why not? MBAs working for Insurance Companies know better than your doctor whether you a particular medical test or treatment…

      But sadly, if this were at school and it were actual medication for which the student was prescribed, it could result in a strip search in the bathroom. Zero tolerance means zero tolerance (for common sense).

  8. 1) What if that was his medication that you saw him taking? “Pills” = drugs? High school vice principals know better than doctors now?

    If you ever had to deal with a vice principal back in High School you know the answer to this one. As far as they’re concerned they’re God when dealing with students (and, occasionally, with parents). I think you need to have some severe ego problems to be hired to be a vice principal.

    2) High school vice principals now have warrantless wiretap and prosecutorial powers? Since when?

    Since the Supreme Court of this fair land has seen fit to decide that minors in school have few if any civil rights. School administrators just keep pushing to see how far they can go before the law shuts them down. (Hopefully this one finally crossed that line. I actually think that one or two of the Justices on the SC might decide that the school was within its rights to monitor the student since he was using a school-supplied laptop, but maybe I’m just a cynic).

    3) Why hasn’t the vice principal and the school’s IT administrator (who should know better) been suspended yet?

    Suspension/firing would be an admission of guilt and would probably hurt the civil case that’s been filed. I would imagine that the next school board meeting will be a lively one, though.

  9. THere needs to be a students bill of rights passed.

    There is this assumption that people under the age of 18 have zero rights and can be exposed to this insane totalitarianism. What a backward way to raise people to be part of a democracy and a free country.

    Also these administrators should be thrown in jail, potentially for sexual misconduct with minors.

    No way they new to turn these camera on only when the clothes were on.

    1. “What a backward way to raise people to be part of a democracy and a free country.”


      Which country were you talking about again? Are they raising kids for immigration these days?

  10. Spent the weekend visiting relatives in that school district, and this story is definitely the buzz of the community. I look forward with glee to the next school board meeting.

    I was also pleased to see that (according to the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper) the FBI has begun an investigation.

  11. We are still missing a crucial piece of information, why the laptop “security” measure was turned on. We have heard from the administration that it would only be turned on in the event of theft, or lost property. Clearly the student was not punished for theft of losing property, as he was punished for “Inappropriate behavior AT HOME”.

    My personal belief is that the administration’s press release was geared to distance himself/herself from the fall out that is going to follow. Their reluctance to say why this particular “security” feature was used this particular time indicates it was not for the traditional/intended use. It is likely that since this was the second year they had used this feature on the laptops (as indicated by the administration’s press release that 11-17 lost/stolen laptops were returned using this feature the previous year)someone appears to have gotten complacent and abused the system. I hope the FBI who is now involved correlates all accesses to the laptops to the school at “home” time and they get a good picture of the extent of the abuse. I hope no one was caught naked because once out there that child will never get privacy back. I think that potential abuse makes me angriest of all.

    1. It seems, according to one of the updates on the school district site, that they’re saying (or at least strongly implying) that the laptop was a “loaner”, and wasn’t supposed to be removed from school premises…

      Which will be a defence with the value of warm spit because they’ve admitted to using the “security” mechanism at least 42 times, with a variety of different laptops.

      1. I saw where they said that they use it for that use, but didn’t specifically say that was what the student did. It would clear up their position greatly, so I call B.S. If that had been the reason for the use of the security camera then we would have seen them state that, or the student would have been punished for that instead of “inappropriate behavior at home”.

        No, what we have gotten from the school district thus far is.. We use it only for lost and stolen laptops. Although IF we were to have used to for other means it wouldn’t have violated policy.

        We also have a regrettable situation where a student and his parents have misunderstood the good intentions of a teacher to give assistance to the student. Which I am sure was what the administrator was doing, but had gotten that (possibly wrong) information through horribly duplicitous means.

        1. Yeah, they’ve been extremely coy about why it was activated, to the point where I suspect their lawyer has told them NOT to say why it was activated, in case their reason isn’t good enough – they don’t want to commit themselves on the public record this early. From what I’ve seen on their site, they’ve already slid sideways from the ‘stolen’ position to the ‘unauthorised removal’ position.

          It’s pretty immaterial – NO reason is good enough for what they did. By taking the picture they’re committing an invasion of privacy which — even if they have overwhelming evidence that a laptop was stolen — requires a warrant. Which would be issued by a judge to police, not to school officials, who are not empowered to carry out law-enforcement functions – certainly not off school premises.

  12. Two bits says that after this craziness the kids all tape over the cameras and find some hack to disable the microphones.

  13. I saw today (MSN, take it with a grain of salt) that the kid’s lawyer filed an emergency request (are injunctions possible in civil cases?) to prevent the school from destroying evidence. Of course, now that the FBI has started to investigate, should the school attempt to wipe any servers of hard drives, Obstruction of Justice can be added to the growing laundry list of criminal charges that could and should be leveled against the administrator and possibly the board.

  14. No-one seems to have mentioned that the camera operator must have already been using the camera in order to catch the “inappropriate act” in the fist place?

    How long had this been going on? and to how many kids?

  15. Why have a anti-theft sytem that relies on the webcam to i.d the thief, as opposed to micro-chipping it, or installing lojack? The whole affair seems really slimy to me. It almost seems like an excercise in pushing the limits of what authority can get away with…

  16. I heard the kid on the radio this morning. He claimed he was holding the Mike & Ike up to the camera to taunt a friend he was chatting with. And, while the “security system” was reportedly installed to track stolen laptops, he never reported his laptop as being stolen.

    I’m glad this is being handled as a federal crime.

  17. I’m really tired of certain teachers, coaches and principals who assume anything a kid does is wrong. Now, I know the vast majority of educators are cool, but it’s the handful like these asshats that really get me.

    Case in point. About ten years ago, almost no kids had cell phones, and some had pagers. Of course, pagers weren’t allowed in the schools, and that was fine. But at that time infusion pump therapy was being introduced for use by children who needed insulin to treat diabetes. So occasionally there’d be some kid walking around with this plastic device on their belt with buttons and a display that infused insulin through a tube into the kid’s body so the kid didn’t die. Fair enough, right? Though 99% of the educators were nice and let it pass when it was explained to them, there were a few asshats who assumed the kid was lying and actually confiscated the kid’s medical device and insulin. I met a parent who explained to me how their daughter cried and begged, actually showed where the tube was connected to her body, and had her pump confiscated and she wasn’t allowed to call her parents. All because some pompous principal was too proud to admit they were wrong in their overly suspicious assumptions.

    So, to that 1% of educators out there who do crap like this: go find another profession. You have no business being near children.

  18. Looks like the school doesn’t believe its own story either, or it is possible that they are trying to create plausible deniability by flushing out the information. They have hired someone to do an internal investigation of the issue. (From the school’s website)

    I also researched some of that was posted on the strydhax website. Everything thus far checks out. If true the implications of the “malfunctioning” webcam and their find of the camera use (not to mention the “pill” incident) really paints a disgusting picture. It turns my stomach to think of what might have happened in the privacy of a young child who is starting to become an adult’s bedroom and if that information (pictures) got out on the internet. This whole thing just gets worse and worse.

  19. School official “(Young) has declined to discuss whether Blake Robbins’ laptop was reported missing, because of the litigation but said the district did not violate its policy to activate webcams only for that purpose”.

    The last part of the sentance is key. “..did not violate its policy to activate webcams only for that purpose”.

    IT DOES NOT VIOLATE POLICY TO ACTIVATE WEBCAMS ONLY FOR THEFT and STOLEN LAPTOPS. This school official has obviously, though possibly inadvertently acknowledged that policy does not LIMIT the use to only that of lost and stolen laptops.

    1. tizroc, you’re distorting his meaning. He means the policy is to only active webcams for the purpose of recovering lost or stolen laptops, and he claims this policy has not been violated.

      If that’s true then it means the lawsuit’s just a smokescreen.

      1. Uh, I see your clarification and agree it reads that way with the clip there and in the article. However the press release from the district spokesman didn’t sit right when I read the whole thing. It read as if there may have been other times when it was appropriate to use that, and those means didn’t fall outside policy.

        It is entirely possibly that I am pissed because of what the manufacture of the software and the finds from the above listed site have indicated. The software took pictures when first opened and periodically during use, as well as when they requested.

        However, if the school was in the right then there wouldn’t be a “misunderstand” from a benevolent school employee who was misaligned by the media. It is obvious there is something behind the drug issues, because the school has basically said that the assistant principal was dealing with the kid and then parents… but is being misrepresented.

        Great point though, and thanks for taking my temper down a notch. Now I have to go re-find and re-read the whole school district (Mr. Young’s) release.

        1. tizroc, AFAIK the drug issue for the moment is just a claim made by the plaintiffs and their legal team, it doesn’t have to be true. What if the subject under discussion had been something rather different like ‘What were you doing sitting in front of a laptop six hours after it had been reported stolen?”

  20. C’mon, give the school a break. They’re merely using false accusations of drug use as a means to fight childhood obesity.

  21. Ohhh.. NOW I understand.

    This situation created an untenable situation for the school: they are legally required to intervene if they observe life-threatening behavior. At least during school hours, on school property. And you get into this good-faith habit of looking after your students. So if you have an (illegal?) computer-observation program set up, and you see your kids in trouble, do you do something? Do you NOT do something?

    In California, at least, as a school-district employee I was held PERSONALLY responsible for student welfare: if I suspected a kid was a victim of child abuse, and didn’t report it, I could be held accountable if it later turned out that the child was being abused.

    This situation sucks. Clandestine webcam observation of students is stupid, stupid, stupid. But *given* that the observation program was in place, the vice principal did *exactly* what I would have done in that situation. Or maybe I would have called the cops right away — now THAT would have been an awesome fsck-up!

    1. Actually, if you think about, if they’re trying the “mandated reporters” defense, they’re still screwed – if they’re saying the laptop was stolen, they’re supposed to report it to the police, not take vigilante action on their own.

      However, I can see the difficulty if they thought the kid was taking drugs – you don’t necessarily want to involve the cops. I’m not sure what the rules are there.

      But – wow, they just really shouldn’t have been LOOKING in the first place!

      Did no-one there see the potential for this situation to arise? No-one? I mean, if they take their mandated reporting responsibilities seriously, it must have occurred to them.

      At the very least, they’re incredibly stupid. Throw in the potential for ‘involuntary’ (at best) child porn creation and distribution, and they’re just criminal nitwits.

  22. Knew there was a good reason why i stick a rizzla over my web cam when ever I get ready for a good smoking section. Here’s a hint for you all, install a program that tells you when your camera’s being activated, then when they switch it on while your looking at porn, get em done for creating child porn.

  23. Okay, quick rewind. The name of the School District is Lower (PERV)ian? and they used webcams to spy on kids? Had to do a quick google to double check the story, thought it might of been one of the onion news reports.

  24. Would it be so very wrong for me to hope that a SHARED folder FULL of QuickTime clips of under 18yo girls in various states of undress will be found on the school server(s)?

    And that a list of who has access to that shared folder will surface?

    The Hilarity that would Ensue would define ‘EPIC’.

  25. I still don’t get how these school administrators have still not actually been arrested. If a neighbor was found to have installed a camera in that boy’s room, he would already be in prison with a very hefty bail set and an angry mob outside his house should he try to return. Why are people with far more power and access treated so much more lightly, as if this crime is just an issue that should first be subject to debate? I just don’t get why the local police didn’t go immediately to the homes of the vice-principal and any computer/network administrators involved and drag them out in handcuffs.

    On a related note, I just can’t conceive of the mindset of such a person who would do this. I’d like, just for a minute (because that’s all I really think I could stand) to be inside their heads. What emotional responses do they have to these issues? What senses of entitlement and responsibility do they think they hold? How do they justify to themselves what they are doing and how do they really feel about what they’ve done? Was there ever a moment of cognitive dissonance that they suppressed? How do people like this become like this?

    It seems they are part of a larger culture of domination that affects many people in law enforcement, politics, military, etc. I’m reminded of what Reich and Fromm and Arendt said about authoritarian and totalitarian personality disorders… I think we can actually use this incident as a “teaching moment” to help people see the pattern as it exists in other realms that seem perhaps more removed– such as the increasing surveillance state, militarization of policing, prisoner torture, and other forms of expanding totalitarianism that continue to spread.

    1. I still don’t get how these school administrators have still not actually been arrested.

      That’s a good question. Certainly they shouldn’t be allowed near the computers they were using to track the webcams. Those computers need to be confiscated at once (before they can delete the evidence).

      I really want this to result in long prison terms, but I don’t think it will happen.

  26. I am utterly disgusted by the idea of a high school giving itself the right to spy on any student at any time, and totally unannounced. These are kids we are talking about. Does anyone honestly think there won’t be abuses? Is anyone naive enough to believe that none of the people watching are pedophiles? Firing and blacklisting would not be severe enough. The people responsible for this ought to be tried and sentenced to long-term imprisonment.

  27. “I still don’t get how these school administrators have still not actually been arrested. If a neighbor was found to have installed a camera in that boy’s room, he would already be in prison with a very hefty bail set and an angry mob outside his house… I just don’t get why the local police didn’t go immediately to the homes of the vice-principal and any computer/network administrators involved and drag them out in handcuffs.”

    Because it is by no means clear hat what “these school administrators” is actually analogous to a neighbor (gotta be a man, right? hmm) doing that. Local police immediately going to people’s homes and dragging them out in handcuffs is almost never a good idea. Yeesh. At least you didn’t wish for the angry mob, too. Outrage is appropriate, rushing to judgment is not.

  28. April 26 2002, San Diego Ca. assistant principal Rita Wilson thought she had the athourity to check girl’s underwear at their senior prom to make sure the girls were not wearing thong underwear. I thought The education system might have considered being more aware of people within their own system who create blunders like this but it seems that ignorance is the word of the day when it comes to education administrators

  29. The frightening thing about this is that the laptop protocols had to pass through several people who ALL thought it was acceptable. I’m sure there had to be a vote to institute them in the first place, people to choose and install the software, then someone had to decide who exactly would be doing the monitoring (or more likely, multiple people on a rotating schedule), then the “offense” was brought to the principle’s attention, who then acted upon it. That’s probably like 50 people who didn’t see a problem with this. WTF is wrong with these people!?
    It would be interesting to graph the frequency and duration of surveillance vs. the general attractiveness of female students and see if there’s any correlation. Maybe that would put things into perspective, and hopefully put someone in jail.


  30. Some very relevant background: a summary of some videos from an administrator at the school, in which he explicitly discussed how to activate the cameras without the knowledge of whoever was running the laptop. See also claims here that at some point Perbix says that what triggered “stolen mode” (and authorized surveillance) was the laptop detecting it was online outside the school — meaning that putting the laptop online in the home was by itself taken to authorize surveillance.

  31. This is getting big enough to require a scapegoat. You’ll probably see a lower level computer tech, teacher or lab volunteer with access to the apps take the fall for all the admin and district folks.

    1. A woman was awarded almost $3 million for spilling McDonald’s coffee on herself. $10k for taking a child’s insulin pump doesn’t begin to count as a fair resolution.

  32. Wow, next time I have a migraine, I’m dropping some Mike & Ikes.

    On another note, if these had been disabled in the BIOS, they could not have been “activated” by the school. Just sayin’ to anyone who has a laptop supplied by a school, disable the camera in the BIOS and you’re good. If the software can’t see it, it can’t use it.

  33. To me the most chilling thing in the Harry Potter books was when Harry was almost expelled for using magic when in his room when it was really Dobby. It kind of summarized the entire issue with the MoM. That they were watching students full time, yet were doing such a sloppy job of it that they couldn’t tell when a real violation from something that was in fact innocent. (This comes back to my feel that Voledemort was a minor enemy compared to MoM).

    Then _this_ happens. Truth is at least as strange and disturbing as fiction.

  34. The thing that would worry me the most about this program is any pervs watching the kids naked. Did no one really think about this when they set up the program?

  35. calm down everyone. each student place the black electrical tape over the ‘eye.’ problem solved. the
    adults have the ball back in their court; after all,
    it’s their problem.

  36. And what right is it that the school spys on the kids in their own homes? That is quite illegal. I take prescription pills constantly because I have bad allergies and sometimes I have a pinched nerve and need to take a muscle relaxant. This makes no sense. The parents should sue the school in my opinion.

  37. At least that high school doesn’t ban candy in their school! My middle school basically banned candy. STUPID PEOPLE. =(

  38. Cory – this case is identical to a criminal endictment already on the books in Los Angeles for a product called LoverSPY. Here is the Link to the DoJ’s webpage announcing the prosecution.

    If LoverSPY was a criminally placed privacy invasion tool, then so by the exact same legal standards is this one meaning the DoJ already has a prosecution demand for this prosecution as a criminal matter before the US District Court.


  39. This should go along with child molestation.Spying and filming minors when they are alone at home should be a serious crime.

Comments are closed.