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Pennsylvania School Uses Laptop Webcams To Spy On Students

by Sean P. Aune | February 28, 2010February 28, 2010 9:02 am PST

The Lower Merion School District in a suburb of Philadelphia probably would love to be known for its “one to one” program that issues each students their own Apple MacBook.  What school administrators would probably rather not be known for is the piece of software they installed on each of those laptops that allowed them to spy on their students any time they wanted.

On Feb. 18th it came to light that 15-year-old Blake J. Robbins had filed a class action lawsuit (PDF link) on behalf of his fellow students against the Lower Merion School District.  The nature of that case was that the school system was believed to have used the laptops it had issued to students as a means to spy on them.  Each laptop apparently had a copy of a program named LANRev installed on them that allowed school administrators to take a look at the desktop and use the web cam of any school computer so long as it was attached to an Internet connection.  The software was installed as a way to retrieve lost or stolen laptops, and over the 18 months of the program, the school says that it activated the cameras 42 times, netting them 18 recovered laptops.

big-brother-is-watching-youThe problem stems from the fact that Mr. Robbins learned of the computer’s ability when he was called to the Asst. Principal Lynn Matsko’s office at his school and accused of “improper behavior in his home,” which led to him being presented with a print out of a picture taken by his web cam as the evidence.  Mr. Robbins claims that what he was accused of was being in possession of drugs, but he says they were in fact Mike & Ike candies, and the webcam image was obviously taken while he was in his bedroom in his home.

Since the lawsuit came out, district spokesman Doug Young would not specify why this particular camera that saw Mr. Robbins had been activated, but he did say to the Associated Press, “infer what you want.”  Mr. Robbins family has since come out and said that the laptop was indeed his, and that it had never been lost or stolen.

The problem for the school district is that this case is no longer about Mr. Robbins, but the fact that the school never informed any students or their families about this piece of software.  By Feb. 20th, a mere two days after the story first broke, it was announced that both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives were launching investigations into the possibility that the school violated both wiretapping and computer-intrusion laws.  And to top it all off, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said: “We’re going to be looking into the situation to see if a criminal investigation is warranted.”

The school is now under a gag order while it works with law enforcement officials on the case, and while the media has chosen to continue to focus on the named players such as Ms. Matsko — who has now released a personal statement that says a lot without saying anything — and Blake Robbins, this really is about the most basic rights of privacy.  Even if these cameras were never activated while in anyone’s home, which the evidence is shaky on, but leaning towards they were, the fact remains that no students or their families were informed about this.  The software could be activated at any time without their knowledge, and pictures could be taken anywhere, any time there was an Internet connection.

Now, think about your own laptop and what you do in front of it.  You eat, you change clothes, heck, some of you may even take it in the bathroom with you, all the meanwhile there is that tiny built-in webcam staring back at you that you pay no attention to.  Are you sure you know all the software on your system?  Was your laptop issued to you by a school or a job?  Perhaps you should take a lesson from the students of the Lower Merion schools and start putting a piece of tape or a post it note over the camera just to be on the safe side.

As the investigation progresses, the school confirms that it has disabled the security feature, and in another statement (that now seems to have been removed from their site), Dr. Christopher W. McGinley, the superintendent of the school district, said that the feature would not be reactivated without prior written notice to the students and their families.

What say you?  Should their be criminal charges filed?  Did the school break the law?  Let us know in the comments.

lmsd

Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...

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