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Federal Judge Orders Schools To Stop Laptop Spying 359

Posted by kdawson
from the black-electrical-tape dept.
CWmike writes "A federal judge on Monday ordered the Pennsylvania school district accused of spying on its students to stop activating the cameras in school-issued MacBook laptops. According to the original complaint, Blake Robbins was accused by a Harriton High School assistant principal of 'improper behavior in his home' and shown a photograph taken by his laptop as evidence. In an appearance on network television last Saturday, Robbins said he was accused by the assistant principal of selling drugs and taking pills — but he claimed the pictures taken by his computer's camera showed him eating candy. Also on Monday, the company selling the software used by the school district to allegedly spy on its students blasted what it called laptop theft-recovery 'vigilantism.'" jamie found two posts from stryde.hax pointing out suggestive information about one school district network administrator, and coaching students how to determine if their school-issued laptops were infected with the LANRev software used to operate the cameras remotely and in secret.
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Federal Judge Orders Schools To Stop Laptop Spying

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  • by The End Of Days (1243248) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:08PM (#31252264)

    When are the "cheerleaders getting dressed" videos going to leak? You know someone was making them...

  • why isn't this (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Presto Vivace (882157) <marshall@prestovivace.biz> on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:10PM (#31252290) Homepage Journal
    criminally actionable under peeping Tom laws? Probably other laws too.
  • This is absurd (Score:3, Insightful)

    by cntThnkofAname (1572875) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:13PM (#31252328)
    It's bad enough that overzealous law systems stop school from doing their job, but now it looks like schools feel they have the right to invade students privacy (perhaps to save face on a possible lawsuit??)... ah the irony of an institution that teaches the constitution and doesn't feel bound by it. No matter how "good" the intentions of the school, this should NEVER be allowed.
  • by epee1221 (873140) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:16PM (#31252368)
    s/"on a computer"/"in a school"/
  • by dreadlord76 (562584) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:18PM (#31252392)
    If someone steals something, and then you add a lock so they can't get in, does that "fix the problem"? Should the theft itself be prosecuted and punished?
  • by 91degrees (207121) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:28PM (#31252500) Journal
    We don't actually know for sure whether the school did anything wrong. There's a hell of a lot of speculation in the complaint, and this is just a preliminary ruling.

    Fact is, it doesn't make sense for the school to be spying on anyone. That's 1200 students to spy on in the hope that they might catch one of them doing something naughty. Why would the school do this?

    There are all sorts of ways that the school could have got the photo through reasonably legitimate means. The suit alleges and speculates one way that is technically possible but it's just an allegation at the moment. We need to wait for a full trial before we find out whether the school did what was alleged, and to determine the punishment if they did.
  • by Joe The Dragon (967727) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:28PM (#31252504)

    The court needs to stop them from wiping HDD's in the systems before any evidence is wiped away.

  • by TheQuantumShift (175338) <monkeyknifefight@internationalwaters.com> on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:30PM (#31252526) Homepage
    Is how does any public school district have the cash to afford one macbook per child? That exceeds the total $ per student budget from when I was in school by a good amount...
  • by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:38PM (#31252638) Journal

    Right. So you visitting a hospital fixes the issue of me stabbing you.

  • by headkase (533448) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:40PM (#31252658)
    So, the government turned on cameras that made their way into Citizen's homes without a warrent? Hmm. Also, the administrators: "We didn't do it! Must have been IT." That doesn't fly, the school is an indivisible entity, I don't care if the janitor did it: the school is responsible.
  • by WiglyWorm (1139035) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:40PM (#31252662) Homepage
    As aa parent, I can say that no matter how my child's school comes across pictures, they have NO BUSINESS what my child does off of their property unless *I* ask for their involvment. The exception would be if my kid is getting in trouble for bringing in inappropriate pictures to school. I don't care what they thought they saw this kid doing, theirrights stop with informing the parents.
  • Re:Camera question (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TechForensics (944258) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:41PM (#31252684) Homepage Journal

    Two questions:

    1. Why didn't these people see the green light next to the camera?
    2. Why didn't they cover the camera with a little electrical tape?

    Reportedly the green light would flicker so briefly it could have been mistaken for part of a startup polling process.

    If they had known the camera to be on, many would have thought of tape.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:42PM (#31252690)

    Your long winded bull shit post failed to touch on the one pertinent topic here, why was the school monitoring the kid AT HOME. Thank you, and have a nice day.

  • Metered response (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JeffSh (71237) <jeffslashdot&m0m0,org> on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:43PM (#31252704)

    I am absolutely shocked and appalled at the manner this software was deployed implemented and used. Fortunately the FBI and courts are involved and this matter will be put to rest quickly and justly.

    That said, I think it's important that there be a metered and purposeful response to this problem. I fear that the parents of children going to this school district will seek some sort of civil damages for what occurred in this school district. That's probably the worst thing that could happen because where does that money come from? The school district, and that will cause irreparable harm to other programs at the school.

    I hope that the parents and other involved parties realize that a civil judgment against the school district awarding significant damages will not help anyone. I think most of the administrative staff at the school should lose their jobs and be replaced, but to see this go to the point where lawyers are making tens of thousands in pursuit of a civil reward is unjust as well. It does the school district and students no good when the goal is to cease the activity and create a better school district.

  • Re:Camera question (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pclminion (145572) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:43PM (#31252716)

    Would you people please read up on the fucking background before commenting?

    Why didn't these people see the green light next to the camera?

    Students DID notice the little green lights turning on. Many, many times. When they reported this to the district, the district said it was a "glitch."

    Why didn't they cover the camera with a little electrical tape?

    Why don't you walk around wearing a bullet proof vest? "Who cares if the district can spy on you, you can defeat them with tape." Uh, the school district shouldn't be fucking spying on students.

  • by baKanale (830108) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:48PM (#31252768)
    More like you wearing a bulletproof vest tomorrow fixes the problem of me shooting you today.
  • by profplump (309017) <zach-slashjunk@kotlarek.com> on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:52PM (#31252830)

    Presumably a federal judge can (or at least should) only order them to stop doing something if they shouldn't have been doing it in the first place, so I'm not sure what point you're trying to make.

  • by RedLeg (22564) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:53PM (#31252840) Journal

    If the school district thinks they have trouble now....

    One good wank or any other nudity captured by this webcam mechanism turns the school district into child pornographers.

    If this numbnuts administrator is st00pid enuf to spy on this psrticular kid, odds are it ain't the first time, and he's probably got the goods on his workstation.

    I'd love to pull a forensic image of that drive and give it a good once over.

  • by andreMA (643885) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:56PM (#31252870)

    We don't actually know for sure whether the school did anything wrong.

    We're pretty sure they did, if we take at face value the statements of the district administrators.

    Assuming the only activations were in the case of laptops being misplaced or stolen. as claimed publicly by the District, by pursuing it themselves rather than turning it over to the police department, they were acting as private investigators.

    Pennsylvania, like most states, requires licenses for PIs. I strongly doubt the persons activating the cameras were so licensed.

    That's the most generous reading of events I can come up with at this point.

  • by interval1066 (668936) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:56PM (#31252872) Homepage Journal

    ...I don't quite get; isn't it conceivable to these Penn. school admins that kids eat candy, and that a lot of candy is the same approximate size and shape as many pills? How in the world did that particular school admin make the immediate leap to dealing drugs from a video of a student eating candy while using the notebook? Is this particular "scholar" so out of touch that he had no way to imagine the kid was eating candy? Like "I would never eat while using school equipment, so obviously that student is using drugs, and from there he's obviously dealing"? It boggles my mind that these people, who are supposed to be intelligent, would embark on a so completely unconstitutional (public school == county agency, and the Constitution blankets any such agency in all American jurisdictions) procedure, and then top it off by using this illegally obtained evidence to accuse a student (who has now gone from "student" to "victim") of dealing drugs. I mean, you have to really be off your rocker to believe this chain of stupidity would make sense to any sane judge.

    I'm guessing there was some problem with drugs, or truancy, or something in this school system and a new teacher or young, idiot admin fresh out of liberal arts school with a goal to fight problems in public schools but completely ignorant of the law (but spent many hours playing video games in high school; Ms. Pac Man all time winnah) thought this might be a good idea. Its the only way I can make sense of the story...

  • by Adrian Lopez (2615) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @07:57PM (#31252892) Homepage

    Fact is, it doesn't make sense for the school to be spying on anyone.

    That's hardly a fact, and in any case things don't have to "make sense" to you for them to be true. Perhaps the people you're looking at are acting irrationally? Perhaps the problem is your own inability to think of that which to others is a plausible motive?

    That's 1200 students to spy on in the hope that they might catch one of them doing something naughty.

    Who says they're spying on all 1200 students? Ask any maker of mass produced goods whether it's necessary to test every single part and product in order to ensure good quality. It isn't, and the same principle may be applied to a population of students.

    Why would the school do this?

    One possibility: Somebody accused the student in question of either doing or dealing drugs. School officials decided to investigate and found exactly what they were looking for, except that it wasn't really what they were looking for.

  • Apple (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MarkCollette (459340) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @08:12PM (#31253060)

    If I was Apple, I would also sue the school. Apparently the school created the impression that the camera light flickering on was some wide-spread glitch with the iSight cameras on the notebook computers.

  • by andreMA (643885) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @08:12PM (#31253062)
    So the lawsuit can be amended to include slander, and the entire student body are potential witnesses.

    These people shouldn't be employed as janitors, let alone school administrators.

  • by Loki_1929 (550940) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @08:22PM (#31253206) Journal

    Maybe that's because money isn't (and never has been) the problem. Maybe it's got something to do with the fact that teachers' unions fight to ensure that there are no consequences for failure for either the school as a whole or individual teachers. Maybe it all students had a voucher of $n of state funding so their parents could choose which school their child attends from the long list of local public, private, and charter schools, there would be a reason for public schools to actually work toward providing a decent education.

    The formula they've been trained on for decades is that the worse you do, the more funding you get. It's not a big mystery why they haven't improved.

  • by tftp (111690) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @08:23PM (#31253218) Homepage

    But saying "laptops are useless in high school" sounds a lot like someone 50 years older saying "ball-point pens are useless in high school".

    Try a nice fountain pen one day, and you will understand. Most ballpoint pens are good only for occasional writing. This problem is somewhat solved today with ink or gel ballpoint pens, but the original pens that used thick paste were a painful disaster to anyone who writes more than a few lines per day (due to the pressure they required to spin the ball.)

    Do you have any evidence to suggest that computers are exceedingly difficult to use in a way the benefits high school education

    I personally think computers are quite useful as a replacement for some books, and for automated testing that requires no effort on teacher's part. I didn't have computers in school in my days, but I wouldn't mind them, as long as I can write an answer to some problem without using [La]TeX.

    These days, unfortunately, schools tend to use computers not as a educational tool but as a weapon against students. This case is just one example; but there are thousands of "hacking" accusations and punishments that resulted simply from curiosity of children. Schools guard computers as precious jewels at expense of students. In a school like that you'd be better off without a computer - less trouble this way, and you'll learn how to write too :-)

  • by NotSoHeavyD3 (1400425) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @08:26PM (#31253260)
    What I mean is this attitude with schools has been around for a long time. We had the vice principal sneaking around while classes were in session because he wanted to personally do locker checks and that was 20 years ago. He definitely didn't consider your locker personal space. What's worse is my school wasn't even one that had trouble, just a completely boring suburb school in a boring town. (How bad was he looking for anything? I got detention from one of those trips because he claimed I didn't push my locker completely shut. Yeah, he was a dick.) I'm sure other slash dotters could bring up instances of their high school doing similar shit.
  • by moxley (895517) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @08:36PM (#31253384)

    to put a piece of duct or electrical tape over the cam lens.

    I don't care what the school tells you, these people were spying on you. Perbix is obviously a voyeur who got off on being able to do this, and with students posting about how they were FORCED to use these laptops and how any attempt to disable the software could result in expulsion - I would NOT trust that school district, because the only reason this is coming out is because they got caught.

    I would tape the cam lens, and if anyone said anything about it, you would know that the the cam had been actived at a time when the laptop HAD NOT been reported stolen.

  • by Garth Smith (1720052) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @08:52PM (#31253586) Homepage

    Throw these people IN JAIL! If any citizen did this, they would be IN JAIL! If any citizen did this to my child, I would throw their ass TO JAIL!!! (And then strongly suggest they get some therapy for being a pedophile.) Fines take money away from taxpayers and the education system anyway.

    If something like this ever happened to my kid, there's no fucking way I'm going to let the PEOPLE SPYING ON MY KIDS to convince me that none of them are pedophiles!!! It really seems *likely* that a pervert in education somewhere would support spying software like this. He can seem tough with security and record hours and hours of underage teens at the same time!

    Government decides what is legal and illegal, thus government decides morals, and thus the government can do no wrong. (People in government believe this shit!!!)

  • Re:Apple (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tftp (111690) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @09:02PM (#31253688) Homepage

    If I was Apple, I would also sue the school.

    Your comment is currently at "2, Funny" but IMO Apple has plenty of grounds to sue the school district, primarily over the damage done to Apple's name and trust of users.

  • by ElectricTurtle (1171201) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @09:42PM (#31254112)
    Computer labs were once 'enough' when computers had a marginal role in business and society (and were many times more expensive than now), but computers now occupy a primary role in both business and personal life. It is only natural that this be extended into the classroom so that students can adjust themselves to functioning productively with them, even in spite of them, because that is what they are likely, depending on career, to have to face for the rest of their professional lives.

    Your attempt to link increased exposure to computers in schools as causal to the effect of this exceptionally ill conceived institutionalized voyeurism carries no water. The problem was only that these were computers issued by the state for the purposes of the state, which, shockingly (that's sarcasm), turned out to be directly opposed to the best interests of those to which they were issued. If these had been private laptops, as happens in many schools already, the problem, even the temptation of the problem would be so remote and infeasible as to be nearly impossible.

    Your appeal to 'common-sense' might have been reasonable once, long ago in the dim before-time when computers cost thousands of dollars each, but now they are cheap commodities. Some kids go to high school with shoes that cost more than a serviceable laptop.

    You lastly make the argument that you would have personally enjoyed a computer because it would have enabled you to fully express your personal deficiency of character. That is tragic for you perhaps, but I brought a laptop to high school (now almost a decade ago, sad to say), maintained a 4.0 GPA, graduated with honors, etc. Don't blame the tool for the person that you may be and how you might use that tool. That's like blaming guns for murder while ignoring the times that they have been used to save the lives of others being assaulted. The tool is only as good or evil as the one who wields it.
  • by element-o.p. (939033) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @09:58PM (#31254252) Homepage
    Tape? Tape can fall off. I'd drill the frigging thing out...
  • by sjames (1099) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @10:04PM (#31254284) Homepage

    The innocent explanation theory is getting pretty threadbare now that we must add a federal judge to the list of people the school has mysteriously neglected to share it with.

    I doubt it's all 1200 students being watched. It's probably a "random" selection based on kids the principal doesn't like for whatever random personal reason.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @11:06PM (#31254844)

    I don't begrudge teachers. They have a very difficult job and we place completely unreasonable expectations on them. If they want to form a union to guarantee decent compensation for that job, more power to them.

    My larger point is that it doesn't matter: teacher selection is a second-order effect, and makes absolutely no difference compared to the massive and persistent socioeconomic forces at work. Blaming teachers is like blaming a loud, rumbling truck for an earthquake.

  • by dbkluck (731449) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @11:30PM (#31255026)
    I've been following this story for a the past week, and by far the scariest story I've read so far is from the Philadelphia Daily News: Students seem largely unfazed by spying case [philly.com]. Among the students quoted:

    "A lot of people think this is being blown out of proportion," said senior David Freedman, 18. "I believe the school when they say they only used it to find lost or stolen laptops. People realize this is not a real threat."

    "It an invasion of privacy, but I'm sure we signed stuff in waivers [when we got the computers]," said Senior Bonnie McFarland, 17.

    How the hell much have we failed our children when they can't even be outraged about this? Are they seriously so used to living their lives in public on myspace and facebook that they don't even realize the value of the privacy that the school district stole from them here?

  • by NotSoHeavyD3 (1400425) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @11:44PM (#31255140)
    Right, I understand that. But you can see how if lockers are the schools property and they can do shit like that it probably didn't take much rationalization for a school official to think "Well the laptop is school property so there's no expectation of privacy if you use it." (Yeah, I admit literal spying is way overboard but on the other hand I had personal experience of a school official literally looking for excuses to give people detention because he was a dick so I'm not really surprised.)
  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Tuesday February 23, 2010 @11:52PM (#31255206) Journal

    Maybe that's because money isn't (and never has been) the problem. Maybe it's got something to do with the fact that teachers' unions fight to ensure that there are no consequences for failure for either the school as a whole or individual teachers. Maybe it all students had a voucher of $n of state funding so their parents could choose which school their child attends from the long list of local public, private, and charter schools, there would be a reason for public schools to actually work toward providing a decent education.

    1. Private and charter schools don't have to accept the the challenged, disruptive, underperforming, or stupid students.
    Which means it really isn't so simple as "blame the teachers' union!!1"

    2. If money isn't an issue, why do so many teachers spend their own cash on supplies for the classroom?
    Here's one article [vvdailypress.com] which cites two studies. If you care to read more, google it.

  • by Jason Levine (196982) on Wednesday February 24, 2010 @12:01AM (#31255284)

    Even that's not an exception. If they brought the inappropriate pictures to school, then it is on school property and thus their business. If the student is looking at the photos in his room, at a friend's house or even has a hidden stash a block away from the school, it isn't the school's business at all.

    If his grades were suffering because of looking at inappropriate pictures (or drugs or whatever), then the proper response is for the teacher to call for a meeting with the parents, not for the school administrators to require secretive spy cameras to make sure students aren't doing anything deemed inappropriate.

  • by kramerd (1227006) on Wednesday February 24, 2010 @02:05AM (#31256052)

    No, the school has no business with what your child does off of school property regardless of whether or not you want the school to play babysitter. Be a parent dammit.

    The school's right to inform parents also only applies to what occurs on school property. The only exception would be things like school sponsored trips, where the school is still the guardian. In your own home, their is never a reason for the school to have access.

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