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.

Related Content:
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Image: flickr / racatumba

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