Lower Merion student learns his school-issued MacBook took 8K+ images of him and his screen

The FBI agents investigating the use of covert webcam-activation software in student laptops in Pennsylvania's affluent Lower Merion School District have alerted a student that they've uncovered 4,404 webcam photographs and 3,978 screenshots taken without his knowledge from his school-issued laptop. The student describes himself as "shocked, humiliated and severely emotionally distressed," and has filed a federal invasion of privacy suit seeking unspecified damages.
As part of an FBI investigation and a lawsuit brought by a different student, a judge had contacted the boy's parents informing him of the breach, and invited them to view the pictures. The youth's parents were shown 4,404 webcam photographs and 3,978 screenshots captured with the Lower Merion School District-issued MacBook.

The amount of photos represents the largest publicly known number of images secretly recorded in the webcam scandal.

School Webcam Spy Scandal Resurfaces (Thanks, Marilyn!)


  1. the remote screenshots are most dismaying since there’s not a work-around that i know of but, as soon as i got my first Macbook with inline camera the first thing i did was cover the camera with a piece of tape and i’ve never looked back. but, i’m also over 40 and to me video chat is foreign and icky.

    1. i’ve been trying to answer that question myself and still can’t come up with a good enough reason other than a single person who was given too much power, became controlling, and it it consume them.

      you’d think no one in their right mind would allow this as it is cleeeeeeearly illegal, but then again there’s gotta be at least a couple people in charge who aren’t in their right mind

  2. I’m glad they lessened the trauma by showing all the pictures to his parents. Because that’s not every teenager’s worst nightmare or anything.

  3. I’m happy I came from the time before school-issued PCs were the norm.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about these stories. People who have been hit by bullshit like this need to make public the details of the applications used to spy on them so counter-spy tools can be developed. There also needs to be some hacktivist reprocussions against asshole schools who want to spy on their students.

  4. ( … well over 40 and video chat has been part of my personal and professional life for over a decade )

    I hope that this is teaching kids to take control of the technologies they currently have available. Someone send this kid Cory’s YA book, please?

  5. Beyond the fact of the privacy violation, which is outrageous, I am appalled that these administrators somehow thought they wouldn’t be sued back to the stone age for this. What could they possibly have been thinking? I mean, seriously. Effing morons.

  6. W. T. F. ????????

    So it’s OK now for school districts to spy on kids? This stupid country (Yes, the USA. Yes, I live here) used to stand for something good. So now we have this, REALLY?? I am getting so fucking angry about this kind of bullshit. Wow. Just sweet jumping Jesus. What the hell is wrong with people?

    “They” – (you know, conservatives, republicans, teapartiers, family-values people) want to cut all public/government services to the bone. But there’s still enough in the budget for this kind of shit.

    I am about ready to go down in flames protesting this sort of horror. I can’t remember when I’ve been this angry.

    1. It is patently ridiculous, but we have a long tradition in this country of bad-apple school administrators engaging in ridiculous shit like this. Now they’re just better equipped. As long as the courts are still working the way they’re supposed to, I would hesitate before writing off the entire country. These idiots will pay—and have already paid—dearly for this.

    2. Amen brother! Everyone is becoming so accepting of this crap, like it’s un-American to disagree with your government or something.

    1. I always thought that “in loco parentis” applied to colleges and maybe boarding schools. I didn’t think it applied to local school districts where the student lives at home, with his actual parents.
      Correct me if I’m wrong.

      1. In loco parentis applies whenever your parents are out of spitting distance and someone else is charged with your care. But maybe not in your bedroom at home, particularly since your parents probably aren’t even spying on you there.

        1. yep, and just where is that place where the extended sensoria of a school’s agency is?

  7. Supposedly, from what I’m told by those I know who work in ordinary taxpayer funded Middle America K-12 schools, they consider that whenever the child is under their supervision, and the parent is not present, in loco parentis applies and the school has any/all authority of the parent over the child.

    1. So… NOT when the kid is is his/her own bedroom at home, under the supervision of his/her actual parents or guardians, RIGHT?

      God, I’m so glad I don’t have kids right now, subjected to this kind of thing. I’d be on my way to jail for ripping a bunch of new ones. :(

  8. There’s a little green LED hardwired to the iSights. I always enjoy destroying those who turn my camera on.

  9. I suppose the smelly linux hippie answer to everything is duct/electrician/gorilla tape.

    I spent a modest amount and got an iPatch for my MacBook.

    MUCH more elegant and allows me to access the camera with no more effort that a swipe of my finger.

    No sticky residue on the lens, either.

    1. I suppose the effete, dainty Mac head answer to everything is to buy something that starts with a lowercase i and then to bask in a puddle of self-congratulatory smugness.

      Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  10. Will someone please explain the value of being able to anonymously spy on students that is not in a twisted and creepy pedophilia driven obsession by whomever is doing the spying?

    /A concerned parent that has used a school issued Mac in the past.

    1. But we only ever used it when they were reported stolen.
      This is the claim the school made.
      This is the claim that had other parents calling for the blood of the student who was seen doing “drugs” in his own bedroom at home who sued the school.
      We never did that was the claim of the school who gave the administrator in charge of the program many days to clean up her comptuer before surrendering it to the court.
      This is the administrator who in emails talked about who was dating who and who dumped who, and called it their own private soap opera.
      This is the software company that promoted this very use in their advertising until the story broke, and then tried to run and pretend it was not their software.

      They were taking pictures of children under the age of 18 in their bedrooms. Guy has a cartoon of what might be an underage girl having sex and goes to jail, these people got nothing.

      1. But we only ever used it when they were reported stolen.

        Its not clear that this story has changed, actually. The letter from the district’s appointed “investigative attorney” was a post-facto notification of the results of checking all the photos that were taken. The legal filing makes no claim that the school district’s account of things was wrong, merely that the plaintiff’s are entitled to damages.

        This is the claim that had other parents calling for the blood of the student

        Do you have a citation for this? There was certainly a certain level of disdain for the family of the former plaintiff, primarily because this was not the first time that they had sued the school district and were apparently in some financial distress themselves of a form that led many people to view the lawsuit as a money grab rather than a rights/privacy justice issue. I didn’t see anyone “calling for the blood of the student”, but I guess I could have missed it.

        This is the administrator who in emails talked about who was dating who and who dumped who, and called it their own private soap opera.

        You think this doesn’t happen in schools without remotely operated cameras in school issued laptops?

        1. 8k pictures of one student sort of blows a hole in the theory of it was reported stolen and only ever activated in such situations.

          There were plenty of parents in the school district who openly criticized the family and the son. They said wonderful things about them, I wonder if the stories changed when they were given a chance to review the pictures of their own children in their bedrooms. There was one father, as I recall, who was very vocal and I had to keep wondering would he feel the same if he was handed pictures of his half naked daughter from the schools server.

          It is one thing for an administrator to gossip about what they see happening on the campus, it is quite another when this administrator is getting her data from a “theft prevention” software package that lets her play voyeur. The package they claim she could not turn on without permission, but she was well versed in the lives of several of the students and produced the pictures of the boy “taking drugs” or eating mike and ikes in his bedroom. She managed to clean up her school owned computer and violate a court order to turn it over while she did so, but forgot to clean up her email history. And let us not forget the great hard drive purge where they deleted everything from the servers. Oh and emailing screenshots around.

          And let us not forget that many students questioned the webcam light coming on and going off “randomly” and being told it was just a software glitch and they were working on it.

          This case is a prime example of what happens when they think no one else is looking. Reasonable people raised concerns, and were told we’d never do that. And then they did everything they never said they would do. When caught they lied, destroyed evidence, found underlings to blame, and tried to get someone else to pay the piper for them. Hell I think they are getting ready to run for Congress.

  11. Given teens, laptops, bedroom … why didn’t they tack “possession of sexually explicit images of minors” (or whatever the appropriate definition is) onto the already fairly long list of broken laws?

  12. I’m an employee in the IT department of a Pennsylvania School District (not too terribly far from Lower Marion for that matter.) I’d just like to go on record to say that this whole debacle has been one, huge, long, drawn-out face-palm ever since the news broke earlier this year (or was it last year? Can’t remember how long it’s been.)

    The students here don’t have their own laptops, but the teachers do, and we’ve always gone through great lengths to explain “No, we don’t spy on you, we don’t sit up all night reading your emails, we don’t look at your personal photographs… that’s nonsense, no one in their right mind would care enough to do that, nor would we want to open ourselves to the shit-storm that would befall us should we.”

    Then this happens.

    What kills me isn’t necessarily the administration, I don’t put anything past those guys. But for the IT staff to go along with it? Seriously? That’s the part that kills me, and that I still can’t wrap my mind around.

  13. I’m impressed. 27 comments and not one bootlicker whinging “but, but, the school was right to use these cameras! The laptops are school property!”

    Good show, Boingers!

    1. Bingo. And, I expect that the latest lawsuit is nothing more than an after-the-fact attempt to rake the school district for more money.

      BoingBoing perspective: Individual uses built in camera to retrieve stolen laptop — BRILLIANT! School district uses built in camera to retrieve stolen laptop — LOATHSOME!


      1. There is a chasm of difference between an individual (whom the police didn’t want to help) finding the crook who swipped his laptop using the camera and tracking software, and a government institution snapping pics willy-nilly of a minor in his bedroom.

        But, hey, maybe your hipocracy meter is set to hair-trigger.

        1. In the previous lawsuit, the laptop was stolen, and the willy-nilly pics were taken to recover it.

          And yeah, I forgot, neighborhood school == big bad “government institution.”

        2. …and yes, my hypocrisy-meter has been on a hair-trigger lately, most likely it’s been over sensitized by the deafening cognitive dissonance emanating from the far right. Normally I can look to BoingBoing for a soothing dose of humor and discussion, but the current post seems closed to any form of reasonable debate.

  14. Some more from Huffpo

    District spokesman Doug Young told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Levin had refused the district’s attempts to resolve his complaint without legal action. Young said Levin’s lawsuit is “solely motivated by monetary interests and a complete waste of tax dollars.”

    Just another viewpoint.

    1. It seems to me that theres a good possibility that this is a pissed off parent who wants to have his day in court to publicly punish the district. A win in court would also set a legal precedent that no, this is not okay.

      If I was involved in this, that would be my ultimate goal. Any money that came in would be split between a college fund and donations to the EFF.

      1. Maybe parents should teach their kids not to steal instead, and should stop protecting them when they do.

        1. You haven’t been paying attention to this case. BoingBoing, OTH, has.

          Not paying a fee =/= stolen. Especially when you bring the laptop back to school every day.

          1. Partly. But BoingBoing is also indulging itself a bit too much in self-righteous indignity over public use of techniques available to small-time technocrats (like me.) I think this attitude is (at least in part) out of fear that our little bit of power in the world being used against us by that big bad hegemony of bean counters and librarians and school administrators.

            Plus the public ruling is unclear about whether Robbins pinched the laptop, or not. Luckily for him, that question will likely go unanswered in the wake of astonishing ineptitude on the part of the school district.

    2. The “district’s attempts to resolve his complaint without legal action” translates into “we’ll quietly give you a small check with a binding agreement that you don’t talk about it to anyone.”

      I’m sure the school district wanted nothing more than to have this quietly go away. Their attempts to resolve it without legal action could have easily been insulting at best. If this were my child I would like nothing more than to publicly flog the school district.

      1. you’re welcome to that opinion. for one reason or another, it has not been the common reaction of the majority of families with children in lower merion. one reason might be that its bad enough to have pay for the incompetence that led to this situation in the first place; its worse to have to pay again because some family and their lawyer wants $10k from the school district (read, the other families and their neighbours).

        1. True, any payment is taxpayer money. Maybe they are looking for a criminal complaint from the DA?

  15. There seem to be thousands of photos snapped of quite a few students, which does not correlate well to the claim that the software is used merely to retrieve stolen school property.

    Unfortunately for the school officials, I have a suspicion that parents of students in “Pennsylvania’s affluent Lower Merion School District” know a good lawyer or two.

  16. There’s no question that Lower Merion made grave errors of judgement with their laptop policies. They may also have broken both state and federal law, though this is (still) not clear.

    Even if it was clear, its not obvious to me how another individual seeking their $10k from the pockets of the people who should have been smart enough to elect a different school board (or whatever else it is the taxpayers of the school district should have done to avoid this egregious situation) does anything to:

    (a) redress the situation
    (b) make it less likely to happen in the future

    I’m still not satisfied that the school district understands that they don’t really know enough to fulfill (b).

    The school district attorney(s) handling this case decided to not target a class action settlement precisely because there was no class action – the overwhelming majority of the students and families in the school district wanted the policy fixed and then the education to continue. This has left the door open to however many individual families decide to pursue damages on their own. The last case (which was not the original lawsuit that revealed the whole mess) got settled for $10k.

    1. “Even if it was clear, its not obvious to me how another individual seeking their $10k from the pockets of the people who should have been smart enough to elect a different school board (or whatever else it is the taxpayers of the school district should have done to avoid this egregious situation) does anything to:”

      To put a different spin on it, sorry for it being emotionally charged was the first thought that popped into my head, So because she was the 3rd woman he raped the state should not have to pay money for another trial against him.

      The first and possibly the 2nd case were paid mostly by the schools insurance, and a majority of that went to their legal expenses trying to prove they did nothing wrong. Deleting files, refusing to answer questions under oath, flat out lying.

      The 3rd student had over 8000 pictures taken. While you feel it is unfair that the tax payers will have to cover that, these same tax payers put the criminals in charge. Many of them formed a group to join the original lawsuit, not to pile on but so they could saw well we don’t want what he wants. The residents should consider lawsuits against everyone in the district involved in this case, it became clear they were abusing the system and no one wanted to hear that.

  17. I am a former Lower Merion student, I have to say this makes total sense. Lower Merion is a public school in a wealthy suburb. The suburb that it resides in is the first “railroad suburb” in the united states, and home to many old and new money rich. The school has always been overly fearful of students and very authoritarian.

    The school district should pay. I hated Lower Merion because of the way that the school treated students. I have never talked to anyone since I went there who experienced the type of oppression that I did at that school. I am leaving out the details to preserve my anonymity, but I can say that there have been cover-ups of rape, violence, drugs — all the problems of any school. The only difference is that Lower Merion has the resources to cover its ass.

    This school needs to be the example for why school districts should be accountable to the public.

  18. I don’t know about any of the Other posters but when I was a teenager and found out about free porn online, I used it. Pretty regularly. And if I am correct, the webcam is mounted on the screen you’d be looking at while beating off. I’d charge them with Child Pornography while I was at it. Violation of privacy is stating it lightly.

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