Spying school took "thousands" of photos of students with covert webcam app, caught kids sleeping, half-dressed

More details have come to light in the case of the Lower Merion School District spying on its students with covert laptop webcam software. The school district of the affluent Philadelphia suburb issued mandatory laptops to its students, each one loaded with software that could covertly activate the laptops' webcams, supposedly as a security measure to help recover stolen laptops). Students were required to carry and use the laptops, forbidden from using their own computers in school, and prohibited from modifying the software on their machines.

The school claims that it only activated the webcam spying software on rare occasions, but this is contested by parents. One student, Blake Robbins, was called in for a disciplinary meeting for "popping pills" while at home (Robbins says he was eating Mike & Ike's candies). The revelation that the school had been watching him remotely resulted in a parent lawsuit.

Now, the parents' lawyer says that "thousands" of covert photos and screenshots were taken in students' homes. These photos included students in various states of undress, sleeping, and partaking in other private activities. Shown below, a photo of Blake Robbins sleeping, covertly captured by his school laptop, released by the family's lawyer.

"Discovery to date has now revealed that thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots (.pdf) have been taken from numerous other students in their homes, many of which never reported their laptops lost or missing," attorney Mark Haltzman wrote in a Thursday federal court filing...

The lawsuit said the administrator, who has been placed on paid leave, "invokes the Fifth Amendment to every question asked of her, including a question asked as to whether she had ever downloading (sic) pictures to her own computer, including pictures of students who were naked while in their home."

In February, the Lower Merion School District deactivated the webcam-tracking program secretly lodged on 2,300 student laptops.

School District Allegedly Snapped Thousands of Student Webcam Spy Pics

Robbins v Lower Merion School District filing (PDF)


  1. This is weird and wrong, but surely the software only worked when the laptop was open? Why are the kids leaving the lids open when sleeping etc? surely closing the lid to protect screen etc is lesson one of “how to use a laptop”

    (I believe installing software to spy on users is covered in a different module)

  2. Well if just ONE of those stored images showed any under age nudity, wankage, or finding of Nemo, I say the school board should be brought up on child porn crime. Maybe that’d get their attention..

  3. half dressed, what are the chances that it occasionally caught was could be considered ‘child pornography’ whether it was expected to be used for fapping by the school administration or was deleted the moment it was found, secretly automatically spying on young boys and girls in various states of undress without their knowledge, serious jailtime no matter the reasons behind it. I can’t believe I would ever say such a thing in a non ironic manner “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!”

  4. First day my kid brings home a school-supplied laptop, I’m going to hack the camera with a piece of masking tape.

    1. I think that would be allowed. They said the students are prohibited from modifying the SOFTWARE. That’s a hardware hack.

    2. Not only will I cover the camera with a piece of tape, but I intend to boot the machine from Ubuntu on an external drive and scan the machine for root kits, spyware, etc and remove as best I can. And what I can’t remove I’ll raise hell with the school board over.

      It should be a requirement that the schools hand fully secured and locked down laptops to students, without any of that garbage, because if the administration can turn on the cameras remotely, others probably can as well, and that’s a failure to protect privacy.

  5. That’s awful! But I do find surprising that only one family is making a stink. According to the article, there were pictures from “numerous other students in their homes”… Any report on the other parents/students’ reactions?

    1. Many of them seem to be whining about the lawsuit, because they think they might end up paying any damages awarded via their taxes or something (see lmsdparents.org).
      We’ll see if they change their tune when they get to see THEIR kids’ pics, or those are leaked, or…

      1. i would hardly characterize it as whining. do you think it makes any sense for an event like this to trigger your school taxes to simply be taken and redistributed back to the people who are paying it in the first place? that’s what effectively what will take place if the plaintiff wins the case. say what you want about about the potential criminality in this case (not to mention the complete failure of anyone to question the legality or sense of using cameras to track school equipment). but does it actually make sense to redress the lawbreaking by taking taxes from the school district and giving them back to the lawsuit’s class?

        btw, doctorandy – if you graduated LM 20 years and moved away, i suggest you come back and hang out in the area for a bit. its certainly true that the township has a wealthy population (median household income $83k/yr) and leans conservative with a small ‘c’. but over the last 20 years, emigration from Philadelphia (mostly over public school issues in the city) has seen the arrival of a substantially more liberal/progressive group of residents, particularly in narberth. its also worth noting, of course, that a very large percentage of the township’s population sends their children to private schools (i think the number is close to 40%), which makes the actual school families sub-demographic quite a bit different from the township as a whole.

        1. “does it actually make sense to redress the lawbreaking by taking taxes from the school district and giving them back to the lawsuit’s class?”

          if the president’s motorcade runs over your grandma in a crosswalk, does it make sense that we “redress the lawbreaking”? if I get food poisoning at mcdonalds, does it make sense to seek damages even though I am also a customer who paid mcdonalds and therefore am just getting back some of my own money? your idea that the government deserves immunity from paying damages because the person damaged happens to be a taxpayer is ridiculous.

          1. if the president’s motorcade runs over your grandma in a crosswalk, does it make sense that we “redress the lawbreaking”? if I get food poisoning at mcdonalds, does it make sense to seek damages even though I am also a customer who paid mcdonalds and therefore am just getting back some of my own money? your idea that the government deserves immunity from paying damages because the person damaged happens to be a taxpayer is ridiculous.

            Clearly, the argument can be subject to reductio ad absurdum. But I also think that there are scales where this way of considering it does make sense, and scales where it doesn’t. In this particular case, we’re talking about a relatively small number of families in the class (a lot of families have nominally signed up to not be in the class as a protest against the lawsuit). We’re also talking about a relatively small number of households that could conceivably claim damages. In addition, unlike your examaples, the cash flow is entirely circular. There is nobody in the class that isn’t also a school district tax payer. At this scale, I think that focusing on the way the money flows probably makes more sense than in the kinds of examples that you mentioned.

            But look – my kids are in this school district. It seems increasingly clear that there was at least incompetence if not outright stupidity involved in the IT setup, and quite possibly laws broken as well. I want both of those things to be addressed by the justice system. But does awarding a financial judgement against the school district that is redistributed back to the lawyers, the plaintiff’s family and a small class really have a lot to with an appropriate redress?

            In my eyes, and those of everyone I known within the township, it has absolutely NOTHING to do with appropriate redress. We want the school district to be teaching our kids, and using IT appropriately, and providing appropriate disclosure to families about its operations. What we don’t want is our money back and a school program or 3 cut in order to pay damages for something that the majority of school district families appear to feel is a matter of incompetence and stupidity rather than malice or illegal intent.

            There is also a significant level of positive feeling in this township toward the school district. It may not extend to the board itself, let alone specific employees of the district: I find that in most of my conversations with people here about the issue, whatever anger there is is directed at individuals (generally imagined individuals) rather than the district as a whole. This also has a profound affect on what we, who are supposedly the “damaged class”, perceive justice to be in this case. You may have your own opinions on what should happen here, but since we are the class that is alleged to have been wronged by the district’s actions, our opinions have just a little more weight. Clearly, it would wise to set a correct precedent for districts nationally, although any district that chose to use (let alone continue using) this sort of technology after this debacle has bigger issues to address.

      2. I agree that a lawsuit is not appropriate (unless the evil doers can be sued personally and not as school agents). That will just end up raising taxes. What is appropriate are arrests and criminal convictions.

        1. Hold on there, bunkie… it was only through their position as school agents that this bunch of sociopaths was empowered to overreach their perceived mandate in such a heinous fashion. ‘The School District’ bred them and nurtured them: It’s the School District’s fault.

          See where I’m going with this?

          Yup… your taxes may rise… you may not be able to hand out top of the line surveillance devices to every student next semester, you may have to make do with last year’s clarinets, and your sanctimonious school district administrators may have to go a year without their 25% pay raises. It’s the price you pay for not paying attention to the crap that the people teaching your children get up to when left to their own devices.

          Remember this when it comes time to make big decisions regarding school boards in years to come.

          Geezuz… you guys just love rules, laws and authority *unless* it may end up in a tax hike. Even if your kids are the ones being wronged.

          Damned solid parenting. Your mom’s proud.

          1. Geezuz… you guys just love rules, laws and authority *unless* it may end up in a tax hike. Even if your kids are the ones being wronged.

            Geezuz. Last I was aware, its up to us (our kids and us) and not you to decide if we been wronged. I think its clear at this point that we have been wronged. But is it appropriate that a single family and their lawyers get to decide what the right path toward restitution is? Even if a majority of those wronged don’t agree? In every legal situation there is always more than one path to resolution, so to speak. The objection here is that the path chosen by the plaintiff and their lawyers is one that many (most?) other members of the damaged class don’t agree with. Nobody is saying that the whole situation should be ignored, buried, etc. etc.

            Even if it turns out that employees of the school district were actively spying on my kids on a daily basis, I would not support the current lawsuit unless it could be shown that the school board was aware of and had sanctioned that behaviour. And even then, I would have some reluctance about monetary damages against the district, which is fundamentally simply an administrative representative of the township’s public school population, which just happens to be the damaged class. If it could be shown that the plaintiff had suffered special, particular harm in his particular case, that would justify damages awarded to the plaintiff.

            If the kind of ubiquitous, intentional photography that some have alleged to have been taking place has really happened, then the right answer involves criminal prosecution of those who initiated it and made it possible. Unless that involves the school district as a “corporate” entity, seeking monetary damages from the district is just a red herring in the quest for justice in this instance. And if it does involve the district in that way, its still not clear to me how it makes things right to simply shuffle dollars from A to B.

          2. Pauldavis – I think you missed Kaden’s point; to wit that one family and their lawyer *should* get to decide what to ram down the throats of the other families since *you were all complicit* through your election of incompetent/asleep-at-the-wheel school board members and administrators. A judgment that unfairly punishes all the families is actually fair since they set up this culture of fail. School boards and school administrators aren’t inflicted on schools by the government – local citizens choose them, and then decide to never show up for meetings or PTA conferences or to scrutinize their decisions, or hold them accountable. One interpretation is that these folks are getting exactly what they signed up for. This is not “blame the victims” – the children are the victims, but their non-participatory parents are as complicit as those who let child-molesting uncles watch their children.

          3. @Tamooj #61: interesting perspective. A couple of responses. First of all, it would be interesting (hypothetically) to know if the plaintiff’s family had voted for any or all current members of the school board. By your argument, had they done so, they would be (partially) responsible for what happened, and thus could hardly argue any right to damages.

            Secondly, if there is one single incontrovertible fact in this entire affair so far its that the school district made a significant error of judgement (and possibly an even more serious legal error) in not informing families of the technology and policies that were put into place in order to facilitate stolen laptop recovery. Had they done this, and the district’s families had sat back and done nothing at all, then I would mostly agree with your analysis. But the district’s employees and board decided not to inform anyone of this. There were no school board meetings at which this technology was discussed, no memos to anyone to ignore, no phone trees describing how things would work. Its a little difficult to see how this implicates the families in a “culture of fail”.

            Its notable to me that you seem to feel comfortable with a handwaving assertion about how “local citizens … never show up for meetings .. to scrutinize their decisions or hold them accountable”. This kind of bland, fact-free, specific-free generalization is precisely what a case like this doesn’t need. Do you have any idea what the level of parental participation in the affairs of the Lower Merion school district is? Or are you just convinced that it must be low enough that the buck stops with the district’s families because that’s what you’ve read about school districts in general?

  6. So, what have students learned from this?

    1. Surveillance is everywhere.
    2. The ‘authorities’ are not to be trusted.
    3. People entrusted with the use of surveillance systems will use them for inappropriate purposes, including breaching your privacy.
    4. When caught, those responsible will deny everything for as long as they can.
    5. Many computer systems represent potential threats to your privacy, and you should consider the risks before using them.
    6. A system that you cannot inspect or modify should be viewed with suspicion.

    That’s six invaluable lessons right there. I think the Lower Merion school district is doing a first-rate job of educating its students, and should be applauded for their inventive teaching plan.

  7. One highly amusing passage from the order … Carol Cafiero pleading that granting the order to compel her court appearance, and image her personal computer would be an “invasion of her privacy”.

    This is after she plead the 5th to the question “did you download pictures to your personal computer?”

    What I don’t understand is why aren’t all the parents similarly outraged after finding out all these facts? Are they so blindly obedient to the school authority?

  8. On the radio this morning it was reported that the district has 57 thousand photos from these activities. They also said that they’ve been reviewed and none of them contain inappropriate material.

    Why? Because none of the kids turned out to be naked in the pictures? They’re photos taken inside of children’s bedrooms! That’s all you need to know. Their privacy was violated and it shouldn’t matter if any of them happened to be naked.

  9. has this question been answered:

    if i was a kid and knew there was a potential for a SPYING CAMERA IN MY HOUSE, why not, uh, put it in a backpack? shut it off? not have the computer AIMING AT ME while changing, eating “candy”, etc??? And this in no way backs what the school did on so many levels, but at the same time, in the age of myspace, facebook, iphones, and a time when kids are almost encouraged by each other to be daring with their privacy, who is really surprised here?

    1. Well, would you have thought to check? Hindsight is 20-20, but if the school gave you a laptop, would you assume it was spying on you? (Well you all would now, but like I say, hindsight…) Plus your question kind of misses the point, doesn’t it? Are you saying we should all just get used to ripping our homes apart for bugs every week or so? That, not even a government trying to ‘prevent terrorism’, but a school, with zero authority in these matters, should be allowed to do this? It’s bloody disgusting.

    2. if i was a kid and knew there was a potential for a SPYING CAMERA IN MY HOUSE, why not, uh, put it in a backpack? shut it off? not have the computer AIMING AT ME while changing, eating “candy”, etc???

      There have been simple window-based trojans for decades that can send a remote user screencaps and pictures from any attached device. There is a potential for a SPYING CAMERA IN YOUR HOUSE right now… Have you ever done anything ‘private’ in front of your PC’s camera, or online? If so we might have some Anon Pr0n soon.

      1. Personally I try to spend as much time as possible naked in front of my laptop in the hope of making whoever may be watching very uncomfortable, but that’s just me.

    3. This was obviously an intentional surveillance policy initiative on the schools part, too. First they ensured that each of their students would HAVE to use the school’s laptops, complete with spying software, by instituting a compulsory use policy, then once all their students had the machine, they proceeded to take thousands of illegal surveillance photos regardless of whether or not the laptops were reported stolen. This software was obviously placed there to spy on these kids. Heads should roll. I mean epically. People need to be fired, fined, and imprisoned so that authority figures everywhere in the US have it clear that this behavior is intolerable, unacceptable, and wrong. But shouldn’t all of the above be obvious? You’d think that.

      That said, to all the people saying the kids should have just closed their laptop: nay. Who does that? I’m a college graduate and I routinely get up in the middle of doing work to do stuff in my room, or take a quick nap, whatev, and don’t close my laptop lid while I’m doing that. It’s convenient and a reasonable thing. Besides, you know, open data and applications can sometimes get lost or crash when the PC goes into auto standby on lid close, too. Why should anyone be reasonably expected to close their laptop lid?

      All of this is nonsense and inappropriate. It is the adults in this situation that need to go to the Principal’s Office, otherwise known as legal prosecution and class action lawsuits.

  10. From another article I read, it is unclear whether the school’s administration was aware of the actions of the two IT department employees involved. If they were, and they let it continue, it’s even scarier.

  11. How long before this picture, and others like it, turn up on one of the Sleepy Fetish sites? (The Unconsciousness Fetish; not the one about the dwarf.)

    1. wait….there’s a Sleepy the dwarf FETISH site?? sheesh, there really is a fetish for anything and everything these days.

  12. Creepy. However, as to the administrator, you can’t necessarily assume bad things. If you decide to take the 5th amendment, then if you answer another question – any question – you have waived your 5th amendment privilege. So if this administrator thinks she could be in trouble even though she was just following orders to take random shots, or something like that… Well, I can see why she would invoke the 5th. But if she doesn’t stick to it, she will have harmed her legal rights irreparably and quite possibly made her situation a whole lot worse.

    1. In civil cases (in some jurisdictions, anyway), if a witness invokes their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, the jury (or judge) is allowed to draw an inference from the witness’ refusal to answer. So we, as boingboing readers, are permitted to infer the worst from Ms. IT person’s refusal to answer the questions.

      Seriously, who at this school district thought it was a good idea to allow administrators to remotely spy on the students? It seems like a terrible idea right from the get-go.

      1. No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

        Nothing in the Constitution about self-incrimination.

        1. “…nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…” sounds like it’s about self-incrimination to me.

      2. I had to look that up, and you’re right. The rule is that an assertion of Fifth Amendment rights cannot be used against you in a criminal case (of course), but can create a “negative inference” against that person in a civil case.

        Summary from a website:

        “Invoking the Fifth Amendment Privilege is not without risk. A jury is allowed to draw an adverse inference from a party’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment in a non-criminal proceeding. Baxter v. Palmigiano, 425 U.S. 308 (1976). Conversely, no negative inference can be drawn from the failure of a criminal defendant to testify. A witness who takes the stand in a civil proceeding does not waive the right to refuse to answer an incriminating question, whereas a criminal defendant who takes the stand waives this right.”


        Loraan raises a good point. However, I think that the rule is justified because an assertion of privilege in a civil case has a somewhat different context. In those circumstances, it’s not about refusing to answer questions from a cop or to incriminate oneself in criminal court, but only to provide truthful answers in a civil dispute between two private parties.

        E.g., in a car accident case, a driver accused of negligence could assert the Fifth Amendment because the driver might have broken the traffic law in the events leading up to the accident (like by driving too fast or missing a light). This rule creates a compromise so that a witness can’t be compelled to testify, but the judge or jury might reasonably conclude from the silence that the person has done something wrong (solely for civil liability).

  13. I support the administrator pleading the 5th, because I believe that this is a right every American citizen should avail themselves of. Of course, since there’s evidence of wrongdoing, I also support prosecution. That’s the beauty of the justice system. You get to use EVIDENCE.

  14. Yah, I’m all for the 5th Amendment. And the 4th!!!

    This case just goes to show that if you give authorities the power of surveillance, they will abuse it.

  15. I feel like this article isn’t touching on some facts that have been mentioned elsewhere:
    The student in question didn’t pay the required fee to take the laptop home with him, so it shouldn’t have left the school in the first place.
    Second, that photo used above was taken around 5pm, IIRC, which would be right in line with verifying whether or not the laptop had, in fact, left the school.
    It’s possible that information will come out that the school and/or the two IT employees were abusing their power, but it chafes me that people are so quick to pass judgement and cry invasion of privacy. Like any other IT department, these folks have an obligation to protect the district’s investment. This includes making sure the machines are where they are supposed to be at any given time and are being used for school related activities, not personal IM conversations and web browsing.

    1. Yeah, no. The parents had made arrangements with the school to pay the fee on an installment basis. And the school has admitted to the same. He was perfectly within his rights to bring the computer home with him.

      “Kiss The Shiny, Shiny Boots Of Leather” is a Lou Reed song, not the official policy of the LM School Department for parents and students.

      1. Not sure where you’ve read that, but it’s been reported in multiple places that the $55 fee was the reason the camera was activated. Lower Merion parents need an installment plan for a $55 fee?

        1. Lower Merion parents need an installment plan for a $55 fee?

          They may have their children pay their own fees out of an allowance. Some parents start budget training early. That’s one of the primary reasons that people who have money have money. They’re good at managing it.

          1. Antinuous, I think you might want to read some more background on this case. I don’t want to bring the plantiff’s family’s own situation into it because I don’t think its particularly relevant. But given what you just wrote, you probably should get acquainted.

          2. I can understand your point of view. I do believe that many parents, yourself included, are too close to the situation to be able to be completely objective. That is why there are laws that are to be applied and a justice system.

            I do not agree that the fault lies entirely with the two individuals in the IT department. The school administration knew, or should have known, what was being implemented. Perhaps financial redress is not the best solution, but IMHO, and in that of many others, this is a very serious breach of privacy and there needs to be serious repercussions for all involved.

        2. Yeah, an installment plan. I can think of several reasons why, too.

          For example, perhaos one parent is unemployed, so ALL the income of the other is paying all the expenses, like insurance, mortgage, utilities, etc.

          Just because you can’t imagine why they would need to pay over time, doesn’t mean it’s not true. All it means is that you can’t imagine a scenario where it would be true.

          EPIC FAIL on your part!

  16. The school giving laptops to students is something I never thought I’d see here, but I just found out starting next year they will supply all high school kids with laptops. I guess its a trend that schools are trying to do this to help kids who might not otherwise have computer access very easily…or is it just easy access for the all seeing/spying eye of the powers that be?

  17. This includes making sure the machines are where they are supposed to be at any given time and are being used for school related activities

    Oh they’re making sure, alright. Hundreds of times a day.

  18. I was really hoping that it would turn out that this case wasn’t as bad as it first seemed. Sadly, every time I hear more details it sounds like this case is every bit as bad as it first seemed, if not more so.

  19. Wow. I graduated about 20 years ago, from the school district right next to Lower Merion. A lot of my friends went to LM. It’s a pretty big school, and very affluent and very conservative. Soccer moms rule the landscape.
    The parental reaction – or lack thereof – doesn’t surprise me. It’s a very conservative area. Nobody wants to rock the boat, but when you mess with their kids, the brainstem reflexes kick in overdrive. And most parents have the money for good lawyers, or are probably lawyers themselves.
    The most important thing to these people is that their kids get into a good college, and that means nothing bad going on their permanent record, either as a plaintif or as a defendant.

  20. Wow. This is shaping up to be as creepy as it initially seemed. Whoever knew about this in that administration should be going directly to PMITA Federal Prison, no $200.

    1. I agree–and tack on an unlawful surveillance charge pursuant to the laws of the city, county, and state (not sure if federal law applies).

  21. I don’t live to far from there and our local news this morning said they’d taken something like 56,000 pictures. I don’t know about you, but that seems awfully excessive to me.

  22. Don’t use masking tape on the camera, use electrical tape. Thicker, better blockage so no light at all gets through. Also, better color match to the PC shell and therefore less obvious, so your kids (or you, if you are one) don’t get hassled by The Man, who on seeing the tape will no doubt suspend the “offender” on bogus charges of “altering” the laptop, then issue a “no tape on lens” rule that is retroactive.

    Photo tape is also a good choice, like a better masking tape in black.

    And put a little tape over the microphone, if it has one built in.

  23. “These photos included students in various states of undress, sleeping, and partaking in other private activities.”

    This story sounds like it could be part of the “To Catch A Predator” series.

  24. @largemarge: There are a whole lot of good reasons for a perfectly innocent person to invoke the 5th. If you’ve the stamina for it, here is a 48-minute video on why:

    There is a tendency to believe that only guilty people need to take the 5th. That’s entirely untrue, and the more people who know it, the better.

  25. The Angle of the photo and the quality suggests it was taken from a Digital Camera. Does someone sleep with full lights on. I cannot get a decent webcam picture while chatting and the resolution and lighting is horrendous. If that macbook has such a beautiful resolution and capability to stand over the bend and take a picture, I am happy to swap.

    Principally, the idea of snooping is wrong, but the pictures released are difficult to get from a webcam.

  26. Everybody seems to be forgetting that she was taking the 5th in a civil proceeding that she’s not a party to – but there’s also still an ongoing FBI investigation. So nothing she says can change the outcome of the civil suit, as far as it pertains to her – but if she says anything the FBI is able to take it and run with it. So she’s best off lawyering up until the FBI ends the investigation without indicting her for anything.

  27. I think we should just encourage the kids to do their homework naked. Do everything naked. Keep the cameras uncovered. Let the cameras run and then the admins will be fucked hard. That will put an end to this bullshit.

  28. Another comment. A lot of people are throwing around terms like “the government” in the context of this case. Its not wrong. But lets put this in a little context. The entity we are talking about here is a school district in a township of about 60,000 people. It runs 2 high schools, 2 middle schools and 6 elementary schools. The board has 9 members, all elected. The role of this government? We turn our kids over to it every day (for indoctrination? to have their heads filled with mindless platitudes? for an education? for inspiration and friendship? you decide …)

    The way that a community like this feels about a governmental entity like this is inevitably going to be pretty different than the way it considers, say, county, state or federal government. There is an argument that it makes no difference in the eyes of the law, and I’m not averse to that argument. But I think that this also does not reflect the reality of how citizens relate to and consider such a local government body of such limited scope. Or maybe it does – it just doesn’t reflect the way that the families that I know within the township think about it. Perhaps we’re all too white, middle class and conservative to realize how the man is still in control, and we are now he. Ah, for the days when I used to sell Socialist Worker outside of London subway stations ….

  29. When did London change the name of the Underground?

    I presume, given your logic, that you’d still be defending the school district if they’d had employees peering in the kids’ bedroom windows and taking snapshots of whatever they saw?

    Because that is *exactly what they did*.

    1. The underground changed its name at about the same time that I started calling the pavement the sidewalk and pronounced “pasta” to rhyme with “rasta”.

      If you want to view the behaviour of the school district in that way, be my guest. We still don’t have all the facts in the case, and inspite of the fact that my daughters might conceivably have been photographed by their school laptops, neither they nor I (nor their friends or their friends’ parents) seem to view it the way you do. Are we all just stupid? Sheep? Rollovers to the incipient fascist state?

        1. That’s a pretty fancy way to say “you’ve become the man”. I wish my kids schools would teach them this stuff.

          1. It’s precisely the opposite of saying you’re ‘the man’. It’s saying you are, to use a prison analogy, the trusty in the laundry room at Angola who doesn’t want anyone to rock the boat about abuse in case the privilege system gets revoked. To me, you sound like you construe the issue in terms of narrow, immediate self-interest. Accountability for these offences might result in increased taxation for you, so you reject it?

            Seriously, there must have been some type of delayed-release brain spore in the Socialist Worker back in the day. A few short decades later and we’ve got Jacqui Smith, Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and other people who think like you.

          2. I don’t think that characterizes my position at all. You seem to consider an organization like a school district as a unitary entity, an institution, if you will, and you appear to believe that when one or more components of the institution make errors or break laws that the institution itself must be held accountable. I don’t believe that this view is universally applicable. In this particular case, I remain agnostic on whether or not the problem is the responsibility of an institution or individuals within it.

            Increased taxes? There won’t be any increased taxes to speak of. If the plaintiff wins the case, the family will collect a few tens of thousands of dollars, the lawyers probably some multiple of that, and the rest will go to the damage class (the other families in the school district, like my own). Even if the township raises taxes to cover this (incredibly unlikely), the net effect is simply going to be returning the money along with an extra dollar or two to cover the plaintiff and their lawyer’s fees. What is much more likely is that the school district will be hit for the costs, will have to make it up somehow and will likely have to cut services, programs or positions that are currently viewed as worth having. So the real impact will be on the school district students, which in all likelihood will not include my children at that point in time. So, self interest? Not so much.

            “Accountability” is sometimes measured with dollars and sometimes not. I have no idea why anyone would think that attaching a dollar value to the egregious behaviour of (at least) some district employees has anything to do with “accountability”. Specifically, it has nothing to do with whether or not anyone responsible suffers any actual legal consequences for their actions. Since I view this entire situation as primarily caused by district employees not thinking I’m more interested in a form of accountability that discourages the kind of sloppy la-di-da mentality that seems to have accompanied this whole technology “solution”. That doesn’t involve the school district paying a family and their lawyers – it would involve people losing jobs in a public and inescapable way. I have no idea which, if any, people that should be – that remains to be seen as an outcome of the legal process.

  30. Perhaps the kids are British, and cannot sleep without the reassuring presence of pervasive surveillance.

    That’s got sharp point, hidden under the flippant nationalism: people brought up under constant surveillance – cameras, informers, routinely opened mail and tapped phone calls – think very differently to you and I. They are, of course, able to conform to your expectations and band vanish by ‘blending in’ – it’s second nature – but underneath the superficial respectability, they are cozens of a completely different country to the one you think that you and they live in.

    Similarly, you might want to ask yourself what kind of people the parents are, in that school’s catchment: they’ve adapted to the knowledge that the authorities at petty and vindictive and will damage their child’s education – permanently damaging their academic career and their future life – just to make a point. Keeping quiet and not asserting ‘rights’ like free speech and free association might sound to *you* a little ‘Un-American’. But some rights are so costly to assert that you actually don’t have them at all: it’s like having the right to walk across the interstate blindfold.

    Of course, there is another point of view: what if the school and the parents like the idea of surveillance? What if they believe it’s right and proper and safe, and all these civil liberties and privacy objections are the noises of the guilty and unwholesome, afraid that their sordid behaviour will be seen by upright citizens who have nothing to fear? It follows that the lawsuits are a sign of the sickness in society, and as unjust as they are dangerous.

    Admittedly, I don’t think that way. I doubt that you do, if you’re reading BoingBoing. But some people do, and there might be more of them around you than you realise: someone’s putting up all those cameras, after all.

  31. @anon #60: Of course, there is another point of view: what if the school and the parents like the idea of surveillance?

    In my experience, most parents in the district are pretty horrified at the surveillance aspect. The issue that parents who are upset by the lawsuit have is not that school district didn’t do something wrong. Its that a lawsuit seeking monetary damages that will primarily benefit 1 family and its lawyers is not the way to tackle what has been done.

  32. One must keep in mind that the secondary purpose of such a lawsuit is to send any other administrator of any other school into a blind panic at the thought of anyone under their supervision pulling such a stunt. Monetary damages are one thing that are guaranteed to have that effect.

  33. be safe, put a piece of duct tape over the lens of any webcam you have around unless you’re currently using it.

  34. I can think of a way of perverting this (if it isn’t perverted enough). You could use something like CyberLink’s YouCam, except instead of pretending to be Abraham Lincoln or an anthropomorphic bear, you could overlay a repeating loop of pre-recorded studiousness on the video stream – much creasing of the brow, scratching of temple, sucking of pen etc, like those comedy glasses with the wide-open eyes painted on them to simulate wakefulness in class while in reality you take a short kip (did those ever work for anyone?)

  35. You know what would be damning? More damning than there already is, that is?

    If pics were taken more often, in salacious situations. For example, boring situations, one pic per kid per week, but if one’s seen doing something “naughty”, it gets cranked to one every thirty seconds.

  36. Wow.. when I was a teenager I only had to worry about God watching me masterbate in my room.

    But the idea of my principal watching me… My hot, authoritarian, Stricttt principal…

    …excuse me please.

  37. It is always easy to be wise after the event. Why should anyone expect to have to worry about the possibility of being spied on like this?

    The problem is that the school board was thinking ‘what is the worst that could happen’, not ‘what is the worst I could be accused of’.

    They came into the situation with a mindset in which their motives were unquestioned. The only thing they worried about was the security of their property.

    Now the school board is looking down the barrel of a vast lawsuit. And their employees are understandably refusing to say anything since they face a very real prospect of criminal prosecution. I can’t really see how this ends well for the board.

  38. This situation is just messed up.

    I would have noticed it, but many less tech-savvy wouldn’t, and didn’t. This is just a horrible breach of privacy.

    Imagine if the school actually had a talented modder on staff that would have removed the solder for the webcam LED on the myriad of laptops sent out. That would have prevented even many tech-savvy users in noticing the cam come on.

    It’s sad how easy it is to create software that can be designed for harvesting any type of data, including webcam feeds.

  39. I’m a tech for a school with a similar laptop immersion program. Kids come in all the time with tape over their lappies, even though we don’t have any kind of capability like this one.

    One interesting thing though about the MacBook iSight camera light: It comes on all the time, often for no reason. It’s a battery issue and it can be fixed with a simple hard reset.

  40. “First day my kid brings home a school-supplied laptop, I’m going to hack the camera with a piece of masking tape.”

    Under the policy of the school, covering the camera was grounds for Expulsion.

    That is the issue.

    The kids were forced to leave themselves open to this sexual invasion and their educations were held hostage to force them.

  41. Are you serious?! Are you an abuse victim? To suggest an equivocal defense by implying that one is wrong for leaving the laptop open is frightening to me. And to seemingly acknowledge that this spying is wrong in your first sentence only to then suggest a reason it could understandably occur and therefore be allowable does not bode well for the state of this country. Are you seeking ways to accept your oppressors? Being that Al Capone was caught on tax evasion I guess we can catch these folks on child porn. What the heck, we no longer have Habeas Corpus, so let’s just lock them away for life. Which political group enables this and where is the ACLU?!

  42. This is taking place in the next school district from were I live and it’s really creepy.

  43. The legal consequences, aside from any criminal penalties, will be the award of punitive damages. That’s how the American civil law works. Someone losing their jobs is a disciplinary matter for their employer; it is absolutely not a legal remedy. I would be stunned if jobs weren’t lost- as a member of the community, it’s your job to lobby for that. Arguing that it should replace a legal solution, rather than act as an adjunct to it, is pretty weird. And, if I may say so, a cop-out.

    You defend against the allegation of acting in your narrow self-interest by describing the way in which you’re acting in your narrow self-interest. Neato! Do you really not see the connection between what you’re saying and my wee story about the prisoner?

    The answer to the ‘but one family are gittin’ the money baawwwwww’ part is simply for the parents to stop the squabbling they’re apparently engaged in and bring a class action suit. They’ve all had their kids spied upon in the same way.

    Incidentally, you can bet the farm on the fact the school district has an insurance policy for this sort of thing. It won’t take a financial loss out on the kids.

    1. 1) It is already a class action suit. There have been attempts by some school district families to remove themselves from the class which to date the judge has refused to hear (AFAIK).

      2) The hit to the kids I was referring to was the change in the insurance policy. I believe that the total class action right now is for around $2M, which if it was withdrawn directly from the school district funds would be pretty dramatic in its effect.

      3) My perspective is that, yes indeed a civil suit seeking financial damages in this instance (barring special harm caused to the plaintiff) is inappropriate.

      4) An existing parents group has already filed with court for intervention in the case, but for the opposite reason than the one you suggest.

      5) The only sense in which I can make sense of your accusations of self-interest on my part are that I’m not talking about the constitution, principles, the rule of law and all that. I really have nothing at stake in this case at all – it will have no notable impact on my bottom line or the facilities and programs available to my kids. I’m not really very taken by the whole “its the constitution, stupid” perspective on this case. That could come from the fact that I don’t view this as an error/crime committed by “government”. I understand that others believe that I am either factually, legally or “morally” incorrect in that belief. I think this is a case that can be viewed either way, with different long term results. I just happen to think that the long term results from following the “the government tried to spy on my kids and now they need to pay” perspective are not really particularly helpful for anyone, within this school district or anyone else.

  44. A couple of points not being revisited here:

    1. The IT guy, Michael Perbix, at the school who pushed the actual buttons to activate the webcam tracking feature WAS ONE OF THE PRIMARY SPOKESMEN FOR THE COMPANY THAT SOLD THIS SPYWARE. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHu92imqJec

    B. On February 18, 2010, the school district posted a reply on their website stating that “The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen,” and that it “has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop.” http://www.lmsd.org/sections/news/default.php?m=0&t=today&p=lmsd_anno&id=1137

    C. Students who attempted to use THEIR OWN LAPTOPS in lieu of the spyware infested laptops WERE DISCIPLINED AND THREATENED WITH EXPULSION.

    For a look at the details of this modern day Panopticon, read this http://strydehax.blogspot.com/2010/02/spy-at-harrington-high.html

    1. Whether or not your point (B) (“scope of use of the tracking-security feature”) is true or not is really the crux of the entire case. IMO, this hasn’t yet been made clear in a definitive manner. Once that becomes clear, it will be easier to move on the next issue which is whether or not whatever use was made of it was illegal. Certainly, the recent disclosures don’t look too good for the claim that there was no illegal activity.

  45. I’m not assuming it was an error carried out by government. In my own jurisdiction, it was committed by what we call an “emanation of the state”, but personally (morally, really) I’d say it was done by private individuals. I am saying that the people involved need to be held accountable according to the rule of law. If you don’t agree, and you feel that the workplace disciplinary provision of termination of contract is enough, then we part ways.

    1. I am saying that the people involved need to be held accountable according to the rule of law

      I totally agree. But that’s why I don’t agree that bringing a class action civil lawsuit against the school district is the right way for the community to proceed.

        1. @raj77: i’ve thought about this quite a bit. i have to admit that the legal process does have the benefit of being a much stronger “stick” to get the school district (its employees) to “come clean” than some kind of “extralegal whitewash” as you so charmingly put it. it could be that the incentive to properly comply with the law during the discovery/investigative phase is a necessary thing. what i would have preferred, if it were possible to believe that it would be done properly, would have been for there to be the kind of investigation that has just been wrapped up (yesterday) by a external investigator, which would have determined the full facts of the situation and then allowed a determination to be made either by a representative parents group, the school district, the township, the county/state/federal governments whether or not and whom to prosecute and for what. i guess in the end it comes to down to your level of trust in people to do the right thing for such an investigation when the shadow of the law is not breathing down their necks, and i’d have to admit that the general historical record of “people” in that area is not too great.

          btw, we (school parents) did get a synopsis of the external (school district hired) investigator’s report last night. the information we got neither exonerates the school district nor confirms the plaintiff’s claims, but it does provide an interesting account of how so many pictures were taken, one that is wildly at odds with what several people here (and elsewhere) have suggested. i’m not going to cite it because the actual report isn’t due until may 3rd, and its possible that the district is just covering its derriere by “leaking” us some early and selectively filtered information.

  46. I’d be quite confident that that’s the case, frankly. Damage limitation is the correct strategy for them to take.

    I admire your faith in the possibility that someone might do the right thing and fix things without being forced to. I’ve never seen it happen in the public sector, or heard it discussed as a possibility. Generally it’s seen as an admission of liability.

  47. I recall seeing a documentary where a school administrator could and did activate a video chat with the student’s computer at their discretion. It was during school hours and the student could see who was seeing them. One segment showed a student was breaking some minor rule – they got busted. I laughed. Then got really creeped out. How do you prepared young adults to lead responsible lives? Are we setting an expectation that Big Brother is not only OK, but to be expected?

  48. Imagine if Dad had borrowed the laptop for “personal use”, after the kids are asleep. Imagine the possibilities! Extortion, anyone?

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