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School District Sued Over Laptops That “Spy” At Home

February 19, 2010

Thanks to a funding boost from the state and federal governments, the Lower Merion School District has been able to bring its “21st century education” to every student. Laptops are loaned to students so they can use them at home, but the nefarious purpose of this funding initiative was recently exposed when a student was reprimanded for improper behaviour at home. When the principal confronted the student, he, and his parents, claimed the principal had an image which was taken by the unblinking webcam of the school-owned Apple laptop. The parents, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, were rightly outraged and are now bringing a Class Action lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District because the serious breach of breach of privacy that this demonstrates.

The district says it was an accidental activation of a security system, which ,they claimed, is now deactivated.

The laptop was provided, on loan, as part of a”one-to-one” computer education policy. Superintendent Dr. Christopher W. McGinley boasted about this in his “Superintendent’s Welcome

The District is also in the final stages of implementing a one-to-one laptop computer initiative at the high schools. Thanks in part to state and federal grants secured by our technology staff during the past few years, every high school student will have their own personal laptop -enabling an authentic, mobile, 21st century learning environment.

As Steve Watson of points out:

What McGinley failed to add was that it also provided the school with 24/7 access to the students and their families.

The plaintiffs also note in their complaint that “the laptops at issue were routinely used by students and family members while at home,” and that “many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various stage of dress or undress.”

Meanwhile the Lower Merion School District has tried to contain the story by putting a spin on the controversy itself. The press release outlines the controversy to surround the (also disquieting) tracking function which LMSD assures parents is only used to track lost or stolen laptops. When activated, the “tracking feature” takes a snapshot of the computer operator. LMSD claims the feature is now completely disabled.

• How did the security feature work?

Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.

• Do you anticipate reactivating the tracking-security feature?

Not without express written notification to all students and families.

Assuming that this “security feature” has been deactivated (I doubt it has), LMSD has only committed to not reactivating it unless there is “express written notification.”  (Not consent: notification.) Come September, I speculate, a piece of paper will be included with the student’s start-up package which will state that there is a “security feature” on the laptop.  Unless the Robbins family is successful in their law suit, the best we can expect is next school year the school district will cover their asses by informing you first that you will be spied on.

View the legal documents here.

Philadelphia Inquirer Thu, Feb. 18, 2010 summarizes

The family first learned of the embedded webcams on Nov. 11, when Harriton High’s Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko reprimanded Blake Robbins for “improper behavior in his home,” according to the lawsuit. Matsko cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam on the boy’s school-issued laptop.

The lawsuit does not specify why the photograph was objectionable.

Because the webcam can capture anything happening in the room where the laptop is, district personnel could illicitly observe plenty more than a student’s online activity, the lawsuit alleges.

“Many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various stages of dress or undress,” the lawsuit charges.

Update: Wired Magazine

A suburban Philadelphia school district is deactivating a webcam, theft-tracking program secretly lodged on 2,300 student laptops following allegations the device was used by administrators to spy on a boy at home.

“I think given the concerns of parents and community members, I think we have a responsibility to at least take a pause and review the policy,” Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young said in a telephone interview Thursday evening.

The move came a day after the 6,900-pupil district, which provides students from its two high schools free Macbooks, was sued in federal court on allegations it was undertaking a dragnet surveillance program targeting its students — an allegation the district denied. Young said the computer-tracking program was activated a “handful” of times solely to track a missing laptop.

Update CNN Feb 20, 2010 “FBI investigates allegations webcam used to monitor student

The family accused an assistant principal at Harriton High School of watching their son through his laptop’s webcam while he was at home and unaware he was being watched. The family also says the school official used a photo taken on a laptop as the basis for disciplining the student.

In a statement issued late Friday, District Superintendent Christopher McGinley rejected the allegations.

“At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security-tracking software,” he said. “We believe that the administrator at Harriton has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family. The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action.”

A school official said it was a mistake not to make families aware of a feature allowing the school to monitor the computer hardware.

  • FBI will try to determine whether wiretap, computer intrusion laws were violated
  • Pennsylvania family claims assistant principal watched boy through laptop’s webcam
  • Official: It was mistake not to tell families of feature allowing school to monitor hardware.
  • District only accesses laptop if it’s reported lost, stolen or missing, school spokesman says
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