student webcam surveillance.jpgMany have lauded the secret surveillance powers of Mac laptops. See, e.g., Engadget’s HOW-TO: Turn your laptop into a home security system. There have been nifty stories about people having their laptops stolen and then activating their cameras remotely to catch the thieves.
Now we’ve got a not-so-nifty story. A school district in Pennsylvania brings us the dark side of secret surveillance.
According to Courthouse News Service, the Lower Merion School District supplied personal laptops to each of its 1,800 students — a laudable initiative. The computers all came equipped with webcams. That’s where the trouble started.
A vice principal took advantage of the fact that she could activate the webcams remotely. She punished a student for “improper behavior in his home,” using a webcam shot from his computer. Well, that’s creeptastic, and class-action-lawsuit worthy, according to the students and his parents…


From the complaint [PDF]:

23. On November 11, 2009, plaintiffs were for the first time informed of the above-mentioned capability and practice by the school district when Lindy Matsko (‘Matsko’), an assistant principal at Harriton High School, informed minor plaintiff that the school district was of the belief that minor plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the school district.
24. Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through Ms. Matsko, that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.
25. Additionally, by virtue of the fact that the webcam can be remotely activated at any time by the school district, the webcam will capture anything happening in the room in which the laptop computer is located, regardless of whether the student is sitting at the computer and using it.
26. Defendants have never disclosed either to the plaintiffs or to the class members that the school district has the ability to capture webcam images from any location in which the personal laptop computer was kept.

The complaint never identifies the “improper behavior.” But we have suspicions. A high school boy + his own laptop + webcam = trouble.
The school district was not just monitoring their webcams — it was allegedly tracking all of their activity on the computers (although the webcam watching is the most disturbing aspect). As Boing Boing notes, this means that the principals and teachers who activated the webcams probably got an eyeful:

If true, these allegations are about as creepy as they come. I don’t know about you, but I often have the laptop in the room while I’m getting dressed, having private discussions with my family, and so on. The idea that a school district would not only spy on its students’ clickstreams and emails (bad enough), but also use these machines as AV bugs is purely horrifying.

Pennsylvania high school student Blake Robbins has filed a class action lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District on behalf of all 1,800 students provided with laptops, for invasion of privacy, theft of private information, and unlawful interception of personal information (in violation of the the Electronic Communications Privacy Act), among other claims.
Meanwhile, we’re considering a sticker to cover the camera on our own employer-purchased laptop.
Big Brother Is Here: Families Say Schools Snoop in Their Homes With District-Issued Laptops & Webcams [Courthouse News Service]
School used student laptop webcams to spy on them at school and home [Boing Boing]


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