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PA School Defends Web-Cam Spying As Security Measure, Denies Misuse 364

Posted by timothy
from the great-and-powerful-oz's-big-lie-technique dept.
tekgoblin writes "The Lower Merion School District of Pennsylvania was recently accused of privacy invasion. Now the school has released an official response to the allegations. According to the school, the security feature was installed in the laptops as an anti-theft device and was not intended to invade privacy. The software that was installed would take a photo of the person using the laptop after it was stolen to give to the authorities. Now this may be what it was intended for, but it seems that someone didn't get the memo." The district's claim that it "has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever" doesn't square with the allegations which set off this whole storm. And if there was nothing wrong with it, why does the school say it won't start using the snooping feature again without "express written notification to all students and families"?
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PA School Defends Web-Cam Spying As Security Measure, Denies Misuse

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  • In-home Reprimand (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Luthair (847766) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @04:32PM (#31221552)
    So then why was a student reprimanded for their in home behaviour with a picture from the webcam used as evidence?
  • Re:In-home Reprimand (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @04:37PM (#31221614)
    And furthermore, WTF is their problem with masturbation?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21, 2010 @04:37PM (#31221622)

    I bring my company-supplied craptop home and get busted surfin' porn. Misuse of property.

    If you're going to use the taxpayers' equipment, expect some restrictions.

  • One possibility (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Phroggy (441) <slashdot3&phroggy,com> on Sunday February 21, 2010 @04:54PM (#31221764) Homepage

    There's one way the school could be telling the truth about this. They didn't say this explicitly, so it's not clear, but:

    The lawsuit alleges that the school accused the student of inappropriate behavior. That behavior could have been reporting his laptop as "stolen", then continuing to use it. The school maintains that they only use the webcams to take a still photo when a laptop has been reported stolen, to aid in recovering it. If the laptop was reported stolen, the school took a picture, they saw that the student who reported it was the one using it, and they confronted the student with this evidence, that would explain both the lawsuit and the school's position.

    Sort of odd that the school's response wouldn't explain that, if that is indeed what happened. But people tend to omit important details like that when there's a lawsuit pending, on advice of counsel...

  • Re:In-home Reprimand (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wisnoskij (1206448) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @04:54PM (#31221768) Homepage
    and why were they watching in the first place?
  • by tftp (111690) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @04:55PM (#31221778) Homepage

    Why does it not occur to you that perhaps the student took the photo and emailed it to their buddies?

    How would the student know that webcams can be remotely activated? Besides, I believe most of the accusation, picture and all, comes from the school administrator.

    My best guess is that the system was installed indeed to find lost laptops. However there were no locks, safeguards or anything, so busybody teachers took it upon themselves to monitor students whenever they feel to it. The district claims that only two IT people were authorized to monitor, however how hard is it for an IT guy to tell the URL and the password to a teacher? Teachers were seen as gods until now, or a step above that.

  • by Volante3192 (953645) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @05:02PM (#31221822)

    What stops there from being, say, 86 actual cases, but they only speak out about 43...hence pick the most or least damning incidents, whichever spins things the best way?

  • Re:In-home Reprimand (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Sunday February 21, 2010 @05:03PM (#31221830) Homepage Journal
    I bet that some kids were observed nude or even jacking off, but the observers never reported it because they'd be admitting to viewing child porn.

    Semi-related story: when I was in high school, I thought it would be funny to use my student I.D. to crush my Sweet tarts into a fine powder and chop them up like lines of cocaine. My music teacher sent me to the counselor's office even though he knew what the powder was. The counselor asked me how I knew how to do that, and I told her I saw it in the move South Central (which was true).

    I had always hoped that naive, alarmist authorities were only a high school thing. Then bam, 9/11, and here we are.
  • Re:In-home Reprimand (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Enderandrew (866215) <enderandrew@gmai l . com> on Sunday February 21, 2010 @05:06PM (#31221854) Homepage Journal

    I really think the whole case hinges on this point.

    They claim they never once turned on the software unless a laptop was reported stolen. Yet if they did in fact punish a student for in-home behavior on a non-stolen laptop, then they're clearly caught in a lie.

    And even if the intent was merely an anti-theft solution, I think there is still a civil suit worth pursuing (if not criminal charges) if the software was not disclosed.

  • by Fastolfe (1470) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @05:39PM (#31222138)

    Maybe the student didn't want to admit that he took the snapshot?

    Mom: Then how did the picture get taken?
    Kid: I don't know, maybe they did it remotely!
    Mom (to school): Is it possible for you to take snapshots remotely?
    School: Err, well actually, we do have this security software...
    Mom: I'm calling my lawyer.

    The remote webcam activation is a pretty standard feature of anti-theft software.

  • by nawitus (1621237) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @06:25PM (#31222672)
    This is as creepy as it can get, spying in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vza_bMuy42M [youtube.com]
  • by slyfox (100931) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @07:03PM (#31223054)

    A student has been quoted as saying:

    "Frequently, the green lights next to our iSight webcams will turn on. The school district claims that this is just a glitch. We are all doubting this now."

    http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/school-accused-of-using-webcam-to-photograph-student-at-home/ [nytimes.com]

    The lawsuit filed in court states:

    "[The student] was at home using a school issued laptop that was neither reported lost nor stolen when his image was captured by Defendants without his or his parents' permission and while he was at home."

    http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/print/9159778/Irate_parents_in_Pa._say_schools_use_peeping_tom_technology_ [computerworld.com]

    If this is true, sounds pretty damning to me.

  • Re:In-home Reprimand (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jc42 (318812) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @07:29PM (#31223334) Homepage Journal

    Who knows what kind 'zero-tolerance' befuddled mindset lets them decide that something that looks like a pill was "illegal" via just a webcam shot...

    It's probably the same mindset as the school officials in that story a while back, where they called in the police SWAT team because a kid had brought a large burrito to school, and they thought it was a weapon of some sort.

    It is interesting that this school's officials are still publicly claiming that their cameras are only used in case of theft, and not dealing with the claim that they'd threatened the kid with punishment for "inappropriate behavior" that they'd seen via the camera. Was this claim a fiction? Or are they just stonewalling it?

  • Re:In-home Reprimand (Score:4, Interesting)

    by twidarkling (1537077) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @08:37PM (#31223884)

    Except not. There's laws to prevent law enforcement officers from doing that. There's no such restriction on private individuals. If the school saw him making a drug deal through the camera, they could freely take the evidence to the police, and the police could use it.

  • by gujo-odori (473191) on Sunday February 21, 2010 @09:36PM (#31224416)

    Uh, know, that's not what happened. There's a great deal of information about this incident on the web, I'll let you google it for yourself.

    The students are allowed to take the laptops home and typically do so. One of the major goals of the program was to make sure that those who could not afford home computers would have access to one for doing homework blah blah blah.

    What was apparently going on is the school was using the remote spy software they loaded onto the computers to spy on kids they thought (whether rightly or wrongly) were 'bad apples" to try and catch them doing something. The vice principal saw him taking what was believed to be some kind of pill and saved the photo. He says it was a Mike N Ike candy. Maybe, maybe not. I don't think anyone could discern that on something with the resolution of a web cam. In any case, even if he was popping pills, they seem to have opened a legal can of worms, and it's pretty unlikely that the photo would be admissible as evidence.

    At least 8 students were spied on and are suing the district as students Doe 1-8.

    Even if we assume for the sake of argument that this kid is in fact a bad apple and does use and/or deal drugs, etc., what the school did is far worse than what he may or may not have done. There's a reason the Constitution places such tight controls on government power: the authors knew first hand what happens when you don't. Sadly, a general lack of vigilance has resulted in the government running roughshod over the Constitution on a pretty regular basis and usually getting away with it.

    I'm nearing 50; those of you who are now in your twenties or in high school may be looking at how much freedom we have lost in this country since you were in primary school, but let me tell you, it's far worse than you think. The amount of freedom we've lost since _I_ was in primary school is astonishing, and we're get it from both sides. On one hand we have neocons who think an all-powerful central government is the way to promote security and allegedly conservative values, and on the other hand we have the neolibs/progressives, who are really just socialists and communists who don't call themselves that.

    The authors of the Constitution and leaders of the US revolution were flaming liberals of their day, but they were liberals in the classical sense, far different from most of those who call themselves liberals today. John Kennedy, who remains the darling of the left, has far more in common with true conservatives today than he does with those who call themselves liberals today.

    What we need to get back to is a highly reigned-in federal government, because any powers not explicitly assigned to it are reserved for the states, and highly reigned in state governments because any powers not explicitly assigned to them are reserved for the people, who are the source and seat of sovereignty. It's been a long time since we really had a government that was of, by, and for the people.

    I'm not a libertarian and have never before voted libertarian, but I will be in the next elections. Both the Republicans and the Democrats need to be punished. The Libertarian party looks like a good club with which to beat them both.

  • Have you seen this? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Grendel Drago (41496) on Monday February 22, 2010 @12:40AM (#31225884) Homepage

    Matt Skala's modest proposal [sooke.bc.ca] was apparently written before this story broke. Yes, his satire is outpacing reality, but only just barely.

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