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Privacy Education United States

PA School Spied On Students Via School-Issued Laptop Webcams 941

Posted by timothy
from the wait-for-your-health-insurance-computer dept.
jargon82 writes "A Pennsylvania high school is using laptops they issued to students to spy on them in homes and outside of school. According to a class action filling the webcams and microphones in these laptops could be remotely activated by school officials, and have been used in this role. One student was accused of 'improper behavior in his home' and the school provided a photo taken via his laptop as proof."
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PA School Spied On Students Via School-Issued Laptop Webcams

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  • Re:Why boingboing? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:03PM (#31188350)

    The submission system is broken. If you submit something with a crappy summary and it gets rejected, it will block submissions with that article link, so someone with a good summary must find another source.

  • Re:Why boingboing? (Score:3, Informative)

    by vadim_t (324782) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:06PM (#31188412) Homepage

    What's wrong with boingboing's coverage of it? Seems like a perfectly good article to me. Ars even links to the boingboing one.

  • Bigbrother tag (Score:2, Informative)

    by dvoecks (1000574) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:08PM (#31188442)
    Finally a 1984 reference that I can get behind. People toss out "Big Brother" any time surveillance comes up, but it never quite fits. There was so much more to that novel than the pervasive surveillance. I always feel like referencing it in a discussion about surveillance does the book a disservice. However, I'm going to bless this one. Selectively watching students at home is about as close to the "telescreen" as you're going to get.
  • Re:Hmm (Score:5, Informative)

    by TubeSteak (669689) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:15PM (#31188588) Journal

    Here's the full list of claims they're making:

    Electronic Communications Privacy Act - interception of communications
    Computer Fraud and Abuse Act - exceeding authorized access
    Stored Communication Act - more unauthorized access
    Civil Rights Act - Invasion of Privacy
    4th Amendment - Invasion of Privacy
    Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act - wiretapping
    Pennsylvania common law (1) - Invasion of Privacy

    (1) footnote reads: "Should discovery disclose that the Defendants are in possession of images constituting child pornography [...] Plaintiffs will amend this Complaint to assert a cause of action thereunder."

    Bonus: Not only does the class action include the 1,800 students, but all their family members.
    That school district is fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked

  • Re:How? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:15PM (#31188598)
    Eh? Blue state? PA has long been considered a swing state, though it has voted democrat for president a few times in a row. In the house, democrats hold an 11-7 edge. In the Senate there are two democrats (if you can call Arlen Specter a democrat..). So currently they are a majority democrat, but in the past have been republican... they switch back and forth a lot. Anyway, the politics of the state have nothing to do with the Florida/Texas comment. Florida and Texas school systems are often viewed as some of the most authoritarian/big brother in the country.
  • Re:at the very least (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rary (566291) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:18PM (#31188646)

    School officials might avoid child porn charges if they prove they didn't see any lewd images, but I definitely see a lot of people getting fired.

    The AP is reporting that they allegedly did see lewd images.

    The lawsuit alleges the cameras captured images of Harriton High School students and their families as they undressed and in other compromising situations.

  • by istvaan (66491) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:18PM (#31188652) Homepage's actually quite interesting. I have a feeling that the folks who are looking to see child porn charges pressed might actually get their way. According to the filing, " is believed and therefore averred 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 stages of dress or undress."

    Seriously, what could have made the school district think that this was, in any way, a good idea? The district itself, the school board, and the superintendent are all listed as defendants. This could be really, really interesting...

  • Re:Why boingboing? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bogtha (906264) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:22PM (#31188724)

    Boingboing (who I see no reason to visit) is probably quoting or otherwise parroting the AP.

    If you didn't visit, then why are you guessing at the contents of the link and criticising them for your imagined contents? You seem to have an axe to grind.

    The BoingBoing article has commentary beyond simple reporting of the facts, which you may or may not appreciate, but it isn't simply parroting the AP. More importantly, it has a link to the class action complaint itself, which the AP article and the "highly respected news sites" do not.

  • Re:at the very least (Score:5, Informative)

    by MartinSchou (1360093) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:26PM (#31188796)


    There is no consent in child pornography. If the students are under 18, they cannot consent, and if they are 18+, it's not child pornography. But it will definitely be a violation of various other things.

  • by TrippTDF (513419) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .dnalih.> on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:28PM (#31188824)
    PBS's Frontline had an interesting episode earlier this month - "Digital Nation" [] there's a section where a school official is remotely watching what kids are doing from a laptop, and showing a reporter how he does it... it's all inside the confines of the school, but it still scared me.

    At the core of the problem here is that we have an education system that is still stuck in the 19th century.
  • by aaribaud (585182) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:29PM (#31188846)
    Well the class action complaint (yes, I did Read The Filed Material linked to by the boingboing page) explicitely talks about remotely activating cameras, so the hypothesis that it would only be the kid taking pics and then leaving them on the laptop clearly doesn't match the available facts at this time.
  • Re:Hmm (Score:4, Informative)

    by Enderandrew (866215) <.enderandrew. .at.> on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:34PM (#31188984) Homepage Journal

    It isn't the first time a school has punished a kid for something that happens outside of school grounds and hours.

    For instance, if you get busted for pot by the cops at a party, I've seen schools suspend kids, kick them out of extra-curricular activites, etc.

  • Re:Tape (Score:3, Informative)

    by Maximum Prophet (716608) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:44PM (#31189194)

    A peeping Tom would get prison, how is this not the same thing only worse? School administrators should be made to realize that they're not gods, and the kids and their parents have rights.

    Seeing as how Zero Tolerance systems are having 12yo kids taken away in handcuff for drawing on desks, I don't see arresting the school board for this kind of behavior is out of line. [] (according to that link, it was an erasable marker)

  • by TrueRock (853297) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @02:46PM (#31189224)

    The AP is trying to confirm the story. The story has not been confirmed:

    By MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press Writer Maryclaire Dale, Associated Press Writer – 1 hr 30 mins ago

    Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley did not immediately return a message left by The Associated Press.

    I have found nothing on the internet that would suggest this story is true.

  • Re:Hmm (Score:3, Informative)

    by More_Cowbell (957742) * on Thursday February 18, 2010 @03:13PM (#31189828) Journal
    Your assertion is correct, but you gave a sort of bad example. If a kid signs up for a sport at school (for example), generally there is a contract signed by the kid that he or she will not do drugs or will be tossed off the team. This is above and beyond what the rest of the student body is subjected to, and the kid makes the choice to sign. If the cops report it to the school, the issue is clear cut.
    But there are many other examples out there to back what you said.
  • Re:Tape (Score:4, Informative)

    by plantman-the-womb-st (776722) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @03:27PM (#31190148)
    Even simpler, onboard mics turn off if an external mic is connected. Just take an old pair of headphones, cut the 1/8 plug off of them and stick it into the mic jack. Easily removable too.
  • Re:Hmm (Score:5, Informative)

    by HeronBlademaster (1079477) <> on Thursday February 18, 2010 @03:41PM (#31190462) Homepage

    The class action suit describes the agreement under which the laptops were provided; no mention is made of remote monitoring. I suggest you read the original filing [].

  • Re:Tape (Score:5, Informative)

    by sodul (833177) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @04:22PM (#31191296) Homepage

    The taxpayers are exactly who should be punished. They elected a set of officials who apparently believe it's okay to spy on families in their own homes.

    taxpayer != voter

    Do you realize that I am a taxpayer and have absolutely no right to vote ? There are quite a few people in this situation. At the same time a lot of US citizens have the right to vote but do not pay taxes.

    Why should I be punished for something I had absolutely no control over while the ones who voted these criminals into office are not ?

    The US has taxation without representation and representation without taxation, so stop blaming me for paying my fair share of taxes.

  • Re:Tape (Score:3, Informative)

    by sodul (833177) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @04:58PM (#31191822) Homepage

    You can run for office yourself

    If I am not allowed to vote do you really think I can run for office ?

    I'm not discarding your whole argumentation, just pointing out that not all taxpayers are equal or equally responsible. Again why should I, the taxpayer, be punished because of the voters bad choices ?

  • Re:Tape (Score:4, Informative)

    by jitterman (987991) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @05:04PM (#31191950)
    The lawyers have made provisions for this eventuality in their filing. The footer on page 16 states:

    Should discovery disclose that Defendants are in possession of images constituting child pornography within the meaning of 18 Pa. C.S.A. 6312, et. seq., Plaintiffs will amend this Complaint to assert a cause of action thereunder.

  • Re:Tape (Score:2, Informative)

    by Leebert (1694) * on Thursday February 18, 2010 @05:46PM (#31192444)

    The Constitution is not in place to "grant" the people rights, the Constitution is in place to limit what the government is allowed to do.

    Close, but you're missing an important distinction. The Constitution exists to grant rights to the Federal government. All other rights not explicitly enumerated for the Federal government in the Constitution are reserved for the States or the People.

    The Bill of Rights is a non-exhaustive list of rights that in particular the Government must absolutely never be permitted to infringe.

  • by detritus. (46421) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @06:35PM (#31193050)

    The school district has responded to the allegations in this press release [].

    LMSD response to 'invasion of privacy' allegation
    Updated 2/18/10 5:26 PM

    Dear LMSD Community,
    Last year, our district became one of the first school systems in the United States to provide laptop computers to all high school students. This initiative has been well received and has provided educational benefits to our students.
    The District is dedicated to protecting and promoting student privacy. The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today.
    The following questions and answers help explain the background behind the initial decision to install the tracking-security feature, its limited use, and next steps.
      Why are webcams installed on student laptops?
    The Apple computers that the District provides to students come equipped with webcams and students are free to utilize this feature for educational purposes.
      Why was the remote tracking-security feature installed?
    Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. The security feature was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student.
      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.
    We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families. We are reviewing the matter and will provide an additional update as soon as information becomes available.
    Dr. Christopher McGinley

  • by PRMan (959735) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @07:10PM (#31193440)
    Here []

    According to them, the system only took 1 single picture to recover a stolen laptop. Now, the thief's parents are suing the school.

  • Re:Mac Myth (Score:3, Informative)

    by dgatwood (11270) on Thursday February 18, 2010 @09:24PM (#31194748) Journal

    If these are Macs, then I can state with a fair degree of certainty that it is NOT possible to spy on people without their knowledge. A few days after they started shipping cameras in Mac laptops, I actually had a conversation on this subject with some people familiar with the camera hardware in question.

    As shipped, the green light beside the camera turns on as soon as the camera is activated, and at the time, I was told that there is no way to disable it in software even by writing custom drivers. You would actually have to flash the camera with new firmware, and I'm not even sure if you could do it even then. You'd probably have to physically disable the light.

No user-servicable parts inside. Refer to qualified service personnel.