/ Dan Lewis / 7 am Fri, Jun 13 2014
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  • Now I Know: Eye Macs

    Now I Know: Eye Macs

    In 2009 a Philadelphia high school remotely spied on students through laptop webcams, wrongfully accusing one teenager of taking drugs. 50,000 photos later, the hammer finally came down on the peeping administrators. Dan Lewis reports.

    Technology has become an increasing part of our lives, and its rule in our education system is no different. So in 2009, when a Philadelphia-area school district issued MacBooks -- laptops -- to each of the students, it looked like the school system was embracing the role of technology in teaching and learning. But a six-figure payout, a court case, and a ton of bad publicity later, the school was the one learning the lesson -- about the value of privacy.

    Things came to light in November of that year. A 15-year-old sophomore named Blake Robbins was in his room -- at home -- using his school-issued MacBook, which was perfectly okay under the rules mandated by the school. (That is, the school system expected that students would use the machines at home as well as at school, and this was fine.) He wasn't just surfing the Web, though. A day or two later, officials would assert that Robbins was taking illegal drugs while using the school-provided machine. The school, it turned out, was able to see all the photos taken with the MacBook's camera. And one of those pictures showed Robbins sitting at his desk, popping pills.

    There were a couple problems with the school's evidence, though. First, Robbins' was innocent. He wasn't taking drugs. He was eating Mike and Ike candies. You know,these. (They look pill-like, sure, but they'd make for a really odd-looking illicit drug.) Second, and more importantly, Robbins didn't take the picture of himself eating the candy. Yes, his computer's webcam did, but that's because the school system turned it on remotely.

    The school system had installed software which allowed it to access the webcam, ostensibly to locate lost or stolen laptops (which it claimed to have done 42 times that school year). But it was also used for other reasons -- surreptitious ones. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer report, over the course of two years, the school system took over 50,000 photos without the knowledge of those to whom the computers were assigned. Robbins and another student, Jalil Hasan (who was the subject over 1,000 of the pictures), each sued the school district, and the former led a class of plaintiffs against the district.

    The district settled for $610,000 and ended the spying program (or did it?)