Lawsuit: Webcams in School-Issued Laptops Used to Spy on Students at Home

By Andrew Moseman | February 18, 2010 6:50 pm

Hal9000Good idea: High school issuing laptops to its students so they can access school materials at any time. Bad idea: High school administrators using the webcams in those computers to spy on the students at home.

Ridiculous as it may sound, that’s exactly what a lawsuit (pdf) in U.S. District Court alleges a Pennsylvania school did. The parents of Blake J. Robbins sued Lower Merion School District, saying that administrators remotely accessed the webcam to spy on their son. Nowhere in any “written documentation accompanying the laptop,” or in any “documentation appearing on any Web site or handed out to students or parents concerning the use of the laptop,” was any reference made “to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera,” the complaint states [Courthouse News].

How did the family find out about this surveillance? Assistant principal Lindy Matsko tried to discipline young Blake Robbins for undisclosed bad behavior in his own home (though what exactly makes high school principals think they have the right to regulate the entire world has always escaped me). And to prove the allegations, Matsko produced a photo from the webcam of Robbins’ computer.

Before we go off a cliff in condemning Lower Merion, though, we haven’t heard their side of it yet. Things may not have played out exactly as the suit alleges. If it was a MacBook, for example, Blake may have used the built-in Photo Booth software to take a picture of himself doing something questionable while at home, which may or may not be against the school’s policy. If that photo got posted online or even synced back with the school’s admins the next day, it’s possible that Matsko was given access to the photo for disciplinary purposes [Ars Technica]. It’s no stretch to believe that a high school-aged person would do this, especially one not considering the fact that webcams can be remotely accessed.

Even if Robbins were foolish enough to photograph himself, though, the school still must account for what Robbins father says: That Matsko confirmed to him the administration has the ability to remotely access the cameras. Never mind that the school owns the computers; just having the ability to spy into private homes sets the school up for a public relations fiasco, even if they hadn’t blatantly used the ability to try to punish a student.

The school’s leaders have yet to issue its defense to these charges. They better have a good one.

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Image: flickr / racatumba

  • Cory

    Well, at least an assisstant principal is a relatively non-threatening Big Brother?

  • Hall Monitor

    This story made ! Check it out for all the crazy headlines from our schools.

  • Don

    Hrm.. interesting. I’d like to know how they would be able to remotely connect to the students laptop, considering they would be accessing a computer on the family’s home private network, which is illegal. It’s more likely that the student took an unfortunate picture of himself, and then when he took it to school, it got on to the school’s server, where the authorities there would have access to it. And, technically, the laptop is the schools property, so they do have a right to know what the student is using it for. Anyway, just my opinion.

  • anon

    Actually, the school has replied, it was just in a weak and pathetic kind of way.

    They confirm that the spy software exists, but they swear they never used it for anything bad. Yay.

  • dasnd12

    I live in the area where this occured. From what they are saying on the news and raido – mac’s come with software designed to help find a lost or stolen laptop. This software allows you to activate the camera remotely and does not turn on the green light that would alert the user that the camera is on. This is supposedly how they were able to access the camera. The photo was allegedly of him taking pills – but he was actually eating candy. Of course this is all just hearsay – what they were reporting no the radio and local news this morning.

    If this is true the school district is not going to fair well on this one…..

  • Andrew Moseman

    @ anon & dasnd12, Thanks for the updates. I’m interested to see more on how they try to defend this.

  • Mitch, where’s my bunny?

    Just think of all that could be seen in latch key kids bedrooms! Holy Makerel Rochester! I hope those viewers got a good look, they may need it to sustain them in jail.

  • LMSD Mom

    1. School should have disclosed that they were installing the security feature (it did not come by default on the computers, actually). That was REALLY DUMB of them not to.

    2. For the time being I am going to accept as true the District’s contention that it has never used the ability for any reason except to track a missing computer. This leaves several possibilities, not all of them good for the District. First, assume that the plaintiff took a picture of himself. If he took a picture that was – let’s say – pornographic or something, I imagine that would be a violation of the District’s computer usage policy and therefore disciplinary action would be appropriate. On the other hand, if the kid took a picture of himself eating candy (as some of the stories suggest), then we have to ask ourselves whether – even if the District believed he was taking drugs – this would constitute a usage violation. If so, they may have been justified in disciplining him. If not, then they had no business disciplining him for it. It depends on what kind of usage restrictions he agreed to. Another possibility is that the photograph was taken by the District because the plaintiff’s computer was reported missing either by him or by the IT Dept (perhaps he didn’t sign it out properly or something like that). Suppose that the picture was taken for the purpose of tracking the computer and by chance happened to capture something that the District thought was a problem. Clearly such a situation could not violate any reasonable reading of a computer use policy, since this isn’t the plaintiff using the computer. Are there possibly situations in which a picture taken under these circumstances should cause the District to act? I would argue “yes,” but that those situations are very limited. Suppose the District happened to snap its missing computer tracking shot just as plaintiff was masturbating on his bed or – as seems to be the growing consensus – as he was holding up what looked like polls. To my mind, these situations CLEARLY do not give the District power to act against the student. The only thing the District could do in such a situation would be to consider the laptop found and delete the photographs. I would argue that if the picture showed a kid playing Russian Roulette or doing something that seemed to strongly suggest suicidal or homidical intentions, that the violation of privacy involved in using the information so gathered might be outweighed by the need to act to prevent a imminent tragedy. That is – I’ll admit – shaky ground, but I would not condemn the District too much if it acted in a situation like that.

    In any event, it seems unlikely to me that this involved a shot taken by accident in the course of trying to track the plaintiff’s laptop. Either the school was spying – which is WRONG on so many levels I wouldn’t know where to begin (please, tell me this is not true!) or the student took a picture himself, in which case the only question here is really not whether his privacy was invaded, but whether the picture he took broke the District’s computer usage policies.

  • Stuart from Australia

    With the occurrence of pedophilic teachers being far from uncommon, I find this story deeply disturbing.

  • Angela Kathy

    I bet Stuart “from Australia” has not finished any highschool and not read one book in his life. His comment was about as intelligent as that of a mouse. Oh, all teachers are pedophiles, yeah right. I am not going to waste my time mentioning that women have motherly instincts and thus like to work with kids while most men do not have the kind of wishes he seems to have (as he accuses others of having them).

  • Mike from somewhere

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