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School District Hit With New Mac Spying Lawsuit 330

Posted by samzenpus
from the history-repeating dept.
CWmike writes "A former student at a suburban Philadelphia high school has sued his school district for allegedly spying on him and his family using a school-issued Mac laptop, according to court documents. The Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa. was first sued in February 2010 by another student using similar charges. That case, dubbed 'Spygate' in some reports, was settled last October when Lower Merion agreed to pay Blake Robbins $175,000 and cover $425,000 in court costs. On Monday, Joshua Levin, a 2009 graduate of Herriton High, charged the district with violating his civil rights and privacy by remotely activating the notebook's built-in camera to take photographs and screenshots. On Wednesday, Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young called Levin's lawsuit 'solely motivated by monetary interests and a complete waste of the taxpayer's dollars.' Levin begged to differ. According to his lawsuit, Lower Merion used his laptop to take more than 8,000 photographs and screenshots between September 2008 and March 2009. A district report uncovered more than 30,000 photographs and 27,000 screenshots taken. Last June, lawyers made photos and screenshots available for viewing by the 76 affected students. 'Plaintiff opted to view the recovered images, and was shocked, humiliated and severely emotionally distressed at what he saw,' Levin's lawsuit stated."
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School District Hit With New Mac Spying Lawsuit

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  • by Rewind (138843) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:39PM (#36380524) Homepage
    Did he never notice the webcam light turning on? It is kind of hard to miss on all the Mac laptops I have seen.
    • by xMrFishx (1956084) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:42PM (#36380556)
      Only if you're looking in its direction. If it's also on for only a short period (to take a photo) then you will probably not notice, or consider it a random hardware glitch. I'd hope the light was hardwired so couldn't be overridden by software, but that's also a possibility.
      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        The power LED on my Amiga can be overridden (turned off). I can't think of any reason a Macintosh camera LED would be any different. If there's a will, there's a hack for it.

        • by xMrFishx (1956084)
          Of course, I was just theorising that it could be hardware enforced, such as being ANDed with, I don't know, Data-Bit0 to control a small circuit with a capacitor buffer of a few dt to prevent it flashing. That's just, some random arbitrary way it could be done that meant it was not controlled by anything other than data being transmitted, and not some software toggle. Personally, that sort of implementation should be mandatory for webcams for this reason. Of course it stops nothing, but it does aid info
        • by jo_ham (604554)

          The LED is hardwired - if the power to the camera is on, so is the LED. The only way to prevent this is to physically modify the laptop, which is not outside the realms of possibility, but it *cannot* be disabled in software.

          • But it's pretty subtle. On my MBP it's just a little green glow. Easy to ignore, especially if it doesn't fire too often.
        • by macs4all (973270) on Thursday June 09, 2011 @05:19AM (#36385340)

          The power LED on my Amiga can be overridden (turned off). I can't think of any reason a Macintosh camera LED would be any different. If there's a will, there's a hack for it.

          LED on the Macbook camera is in parallel with the power supply to the camera. Camera module power == LED ON.

      • by jo_ham (604554) <joham999&gmail,com> on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @06:40PM (#36381198)

        It is. All iSight cameras on Mac laptops have hardwired LEDs. You can't disable the light in software.

      • by anyGould (1295481) on Thursday June 09, 2011 @10:17AM (#36387682)

        If I remember the original articles last year, some people did notice the light blinking, brought it up with the school, and the school told them it was a glitch and that they should ignore it.

    • Students barely read anymore; why assume the cluestick of a light will work?

      • by rve (4436)

        Students barely read anymore;

        The older generations have been uttering this complaint for at least the last 25 centuries, but presumably ever since writing was invented.

        The older you get, and the closer to the age of irrelevance, the more people seem to forget how little they themselves knew when they were 16.

        Every generation is going to be poorly adapted to the time when their elders were kids. They'll be well adapted to the time when we are old and scared of change.

    • by Toonol (1057698) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:44PM (#36380578)
      ' "Plaintiff's younger brother noticed that the light in the camera would go off and on at odd times, wondering if the family was being 'spied on.' Plaintiff's mother dismissed this idea as absurd, as the notion that the school district was secretly monitoring and taking pictures of students was simply incomprehensible and beyond all rational belief." '

      Answered in the article. The thought that the school district was spying on them was dismissed as ludicrous. And, in fairness, it is practically insane. Rather than lawsuits and payouts, though (which punishes the wrong people), I'd prefer just to fire everyone in management at the school.
      • by 0123456 (636235)

        Rather than lawsuits and payouts, though (which punishes the wrong people), I'd prefer just to fire everyone in management at the school.

        Surely the best solution would be to make the people who made these decisions pay the damages? To encourage the others, and all that.

    • by mwvdlee (775178)

      It wasn't just the webcam, they also made screenshots.

    • by canajin56 (660655)
      In the original case, the students were told by the teachers that it was probably a hardware glitch, and not to worry about it. Or tell anybody, ever.
    • who says the webcam light does come on? I'm pretty sure a commercially developed spyware application could find a way around it.
    • You're assuming a fair lot here.

      1. That they were not told that this is normal or possibly a hardware glitch.
      2. That they know what "webcam lights" are. Personally, I wouldn't know, but then, I never owned a Mac.
      3. That in either case they read the manual.
      4. That this light cannot be disabled, if everything fails, by snipping the power cables or physically destroying them before handing them to students.

      Bluntly, if I tried to spy on someone and there's something in my spy device that would give it away, I'd

    • by pclminion (145572) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:51PM (#36380656)
      And your point is what? That violation of privacy is okay so long as a LED is involved? That it's okay to violate the privacy of people who aren't paying enough attention?
    • by CSFFlame (761318)
      Yes the light blinks for a splitsecond and is hardwired. Their IT dept told the students it was a glitch. The geeks didn't believe them and put electrical tape over the cameras. People made fun of them...
      • by Sparx139 (1460489)
        Not much of a techie, but would it be possible to hack the webcam so that it shows goatse or something similar? It'd stop them spying, that's for sure :p
    • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

      Did he never notice the webcam light turning on?

      I sure hope so.

      And I hope he started thinking about the award he was going to get after suing the school district that thought this kind of thing was OK.

      That's the part that frosts me. Someone at the school district, someone in a sensitive position, actually thought that it would be acceptable to remotely turn on a camera on a laptop that students were using and were allowed to take home, and to download screen captures of what the students were doing.

      If you

  • by jmcbain (1233044) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:40PM (#36380534)
    If you're not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about. In this post-9/11 world, you have to relinquish some of your rights to live more safely. Think of the children.
    • by TommydCat (791543) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:42PM (#36380562) Homepage
      I believe the pervs in IT were thinking of the children when they activated the webcams...
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by cpu6502 (1960974)

      Whoever modded you "troll" is an idiot. Clearly you were being sarcastic.

      The irony is that the government doesn't want us to spy on Their actions (think wikileaks and learning the Mrs. Clinton was stealin credit card numbers), but when the government spies on us then it's okay.

      It's for the children. Or for anti-terrorism. If they were honest they'd admit it's for their own desire to Control the masses, as the nobility has always done.

      • Troll (Score:3, Insightful)

        by formfeed (703859)

        Whoever modded you "troll" is an idiot.

        No surprise there. I looked at some of my comment mods and it alternated between "funny" and "troll" for quite some time. Once it hits "+4 funny" the troll mods stop. Maybe clue starts to hit at that level: "Oh, 4 people thought this is funny. Maybe I should read it again and look for irony markers." Just odd that that doesn't happen at "+2 funny" already. I suggest a new mod-point: "+-0 I don't get it". It doesn't mod it up or down, but gets rid of a mod point.

    • Stop thinking of the children all the time, it makes you look like a pedo.

    • If you're not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about. In this post-9/11 world, you have to relinquish some of your rights to live more safely. Think of the children.

      Hmm, perhaps the school should have argued they were "lookin' fer terrists". The students complaining would have been strung up as bin laden lovers.
      Oops, wrong state - my bad.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      That isn't a justification for open disregard for people's rights. Nor is it justification for allowing criminals to run rampant. Try again, part of the problem.

  • Lube optional

  • Kiddie pron? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CCarrot (1562079) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:50PM (#36380642)

    I'm an adult (no really, I am) and even I sometimes use my laptops without being, er, fully ready to meet the public, as it were*.

    Unless I miss my guess, a whole lot of these images would probably fall under the 'kiddie porn' category. I didn't RTFA, did they mention that in there? That bumps this issue up to a criminal court at least...even if someone is reviewing the images as they come in and 'deleting' the improper ones (wouldn't PedoBear love that job!), they've still been created, and viewed.

    *Of course I also have a little piece of electrical tape over each and every one of my laptop webcams. Try to hack that!

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      *Of course I also have a little piece of electrical tape over each and every one of my laptop webcams. Try to hack that!

      The webcam switch on my Asus laptop also actuates a little mechanical shutter built in to the webcam housing. Now that is how you make a secure webcam switch. Doesn't matter if the camera is somehow hacked, a purely mechanical shutter like that isn't going anywhere unless I move it. It also doesn't leave any sticky residue on the lens.

      • by Shikaku (1129753)

        It also doesn't leave any sticky residue on the lens.

        Tape a black piece of cloth over it. Or anything else dark.

  • by gubers33 (1302099) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:52PM (#36380668)
    Funny that Lower Merion is about 30 minutes from where I grew up and my former high school was violating privacy as well through technology. According to reports I am hearing from my family and friend who live in the area there school employees making fake Facebook accounts to befriend students to look for incriminating photos. It seems that many schools forgot that they are there to teach the students and think it is there job to police and discipline them for their activities outside of the classroom. As technology grows so will the number of those who abuse it.
    • by Rakarra (112805)

      Funny that Lower Merion is about 30 minutes from where I grew up and my former high school was violating privacy as well through technology. According to reports I am hearing from my family and friend who live in the area there school employees making fake Facebook accounts to befriend students to look for incriminating photos. It seems that many schools forgot that they are there to teach the students and think it is there job to police and discipline them for their activities outside of the classroom. As technology grows so will the number of those who abuse it.

      And here I thought school districts were strapped for cash. It sounds like this district had some employees with too much time.

      • by loraksus (171574)

        Yes, but people with hardons for authoritarian pet projects always allocate funds "properly"

  • Blame it on IT (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Luthair (847766) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:53PM (#36380682)

    Does it seem to anyone else that they're trying to shift blame onto the IT folks?

    While I know nothing about the details of the report, or really the case beyond what has surfaced on Slashdot.... I find it hard to believe that the IT folks would be the ones directing which students to take pictures of, it seems that this direction would come from their superiors, the administration.

    • Re:Blame it on IT (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Vancorps (746090) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @06:09PM (#36380806)

      As a recently promoted IT Manager from Sysadmin I can say that IT should have fought back. Spying is a dangerous game for anyone to play. Given the nature of trust granted to IT professionals privacy should always be a concern. Sometimes managers want to spy on their employees; to that I respond by asking them if they are happy with the work their employees are doing. If they are not happy then I suggest they talk to that employee about their performance, this usually happens with HR involved. I consulted with legal and it is now company policy. The only way we'll spy on you is if we think you're doing something illegal and luckily so far that hasn't come up.

      It is our duty to safeguard all users of the network, not just the executives. The case would only be more true in a public setting like a school and especially when kids are involved.

      • As a very experienced engineer, I can tell you that they may well have fought back. But we won't see it in the press, and we'll only see it in the court documents if the IT staff are pressed very hard and forced to defend themselves personally, and if htey had the good sense to keep paper or other copies of the relevant documents in an emergency backup loation. The school district's managers and attorneys will control any information that gets to the plaintiffs about whose idea this was, what warnings were

    • In this case, blaming it on IT might be accurate. The photos were apparently snapped by anti-theft software LANRev, now rebranded as Absolute Manage [wikipedia.org]. The LANRev feature set has been permanently dropped from the product line [techrepublic.com] in response to these lawsuits.

  • Motivation (Score:5, Insightful)

    by whisper_jeff (680366) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:54PM (#36380694)
    He's motivated by money? Well, yeah, but he's also right and I imagine the school district will be cutting another cheque. His motivation for filing the suit doesn't matter - all that matters is whether or not he's right and, as has been made clear, odds are very good that he is.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @05:58PM (#36380720)

    This doesn't seem like the kind of thing that should be solved by monetary re-imbursment.

    There should be a federal investigation, and everyone who decided to spy on school kids, as well as everyone who was aware this was going on but didn't report it to the police, should be charged and possibly sent to prison.

    • by guruevi (827432)

      That would cost even more money. A prisoner costs 50,000 per year on average. This type of thing usually includes more than 4 or 5 people. Plus the victim doesn't benefit and the perpetrator is not violent or a danger to society.

      • Anyone who thinks that it's OK to spy on little kids in their homes is a danger to society. The question is whether any laws were broken. Regardless, all involved should be looking for new jobs. In this economy, good luck with that losers.
      • by element-o.p. (939033) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @08:11PM (#36382152) Homepage
        'Kay...convict them, then release them immediately on probation. But make absolutely sure that everyone involved in the decision-making process is required to register as a convicted sex offender.
    • FBI blew it off. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by pavon (30274) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @06:11PM (#36380826)

      The FBI did investigate and chose to not press any charges [fbi.gov], since they didn't have "criminal intent", which is of course bullshit. They broke the law, and there are penalties for illegal wiretapping, both with and without criminal intent.

    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @06:13PM (#36380854) Journal

      This doesn't seem like the kind of thing that should be solved by monetary re-imbursment.

      There should be a federal investigation, and everyone who decided to spy on school kids, as well as everyone who was aware this was going on but didn't report it to the police, should be charged and possibly sent to prison.

      That would be the way it should go, but it doesn't seem there's even the least bit of interest in a criminal investigation. The plaintiffs are left but one recourse now, and that's a civil remedy.

    • by spasm (79260)

      Monetary reimbursement requires a lower guilt threshold than putting someone into jail for a year. More to the point, monetary payments hurt the entire school district, and other school districts considering doing similar things will be more likely to be scared off doing something similar than by a case where a couple of specific individuals are jailed. Not that you can't have both.

  • by Opportunist (166417) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @06:02PM (#36380736)

    Whenever you get something for free, distrust it. Even if it's from someone you would trust otherwise.

    Your privacy is yours to defend. Everyone else is trying to limit it. Companies, governments, hell, I even know parents who think it's a good idea to spy on their kids all the time. Hey, do you know where your kids are now?

    My hope is, now that teenagers finally get to feel what level of blatant trespassing on privacy is happening, we might eventually get a generation that starts to oppose the development. It might take longer than "Generation Facebook", but I hope our powers that are do what they usually do: They overdo it to the point where people start to fight back.

    • The problem with that lesson is that kids LIVE off of free handouts... from their parents. It's perfectly normal and a long established process of life. If you append that to "TANSTAFL, except when I do it", that's kind of the basis of hypocrisy. And if you go too far, you wind up with "trust no one, but you and yours" and that's full fledged bigotry. Raising kids is hard.

      True, it takes a particularly smart kid to question the logical fallacy of someone advising them never to trust advice (or one that's
  • "lawsuit 'solely motivated by monetary interests "

    A lawsuit done for monetary interests? Who ever heard of this?

  • by milwcoder (1132835) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @06:22PM (#36380934)

    On Wednesday, Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young called Levin's lawsuit 'solely motivated by monetary interests and a complete waste of the taxpayer's dollars.'

    I'm appalled by the sheer lack of concern of the privacy issue raised by this lawsuit, and the respect for students indicated by this official statement. I'd start a campaign to vote out the current admin if my children were given this kind of treatment.

    • by ScrewMaster (602015) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @09:55PM (#36382882)

      On Wednesday, Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young called Levin's lawsuit 'solely motivated by monetary interests and a complete waste of the taxpayer's dollars.'

      I'm appalled by the sheer lack of concern of the privacy issue raised by this lawsuit, and the respect for students indicated by this official statement. I'd start a campaign to vote out the current admin if my children were given this kind of treatment.

      The arrogance of a typical school's administrative personnel is not to be believed. Really, it's just over the top.

  • After reading the summary, I'm not exactly sure what I find more disturbing...

    The notion of spying done by a school that was perceived as "incomprehensible" by the parents that turned out to be absolutely true, or looking at a figure of almost half a million dollars payed out in "court costs", well over double the amount paid to the actual victim. I'd love to hear a rational and sensible explanation for those extortionist rates.

    And we wonder why our insurance rates are so high, and why we are forced to ca

  • by erroneus (253617) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @06:33PM (#36381112) Homepage

    We can talk all day long about "fair" and "unfair" and on and on and never arrive at a conclusion. But "childhood" is a transitory state. The purpose of teaching children is to teach them to be good, useful people when they become adults. I think this amount of truth is indisputable.

    But by teaching them to accept being spied upon and to have no "expectation of privacy" or anything along these lines, what are we breeding? It is known that it is a human need to have privacy and a sense of self and in every case, the result is rebellion or some other undesirable result. We tend to think things like "it's our right to know" but is it our right to do that kind of psychological damage to these developing minds?

    In addition to teaching them math, language, science and history, we should also be teaching them about the world they are growing into and how to cope with it and what to expect from it. Sure, students shouldn't be doing things with school equipment that it was not intended for, but when the cost of having it (was it optional?) removes privacy and even dignity of the students AND their unsuspecting families, it is clear someone's sense of authority has gone beyond its boundaries. And once again, what does this say to the young mind?

    We keep seeing stories of how schools interfere with the private lives and dealings of students. There are and should be limits which at least mirror those we can expect to see in the work place. For example, "sexual harassment" can and does extend beyond the walls of the office building as does anything that creates a hostile work environment. Similarly, if a student harasses another student, it should be actionable by the school in some way. However, when it comes to things like "being critical of leadership" we need to treat school officials as if they were politicians in office and so when someone makes a mock-up web site for their principal and makes all sorts of "parody" types of claims, that sort of free speech needs to be protected in the same way. But these school leaders end up acting like tyrants and dictators or in ways that are inconsistent with our governmental and judicial ideals. That simply needs to stop.

    In the end "think of the children" because they are the adults of tomorrow. And you know what? Think of YOURSELF because those young bastards will be taking care of us in one way or another and the quality of that care depends largely on how well we take care of them now!

  • 1. Yes there was "spy cam" software 2. Yes, it has been removed from all equipment during the last refresh (summer 2010) 3. The spy cam photos were taken on laptops that were ILLEGALLY REMOVED FROM THE SCHOOL in an attempt to recover them, so this is no different than the people who post pictures from their Macs of the people who stole them. 4. The PARENTS of the children involved refused to pay the insurance on the laptops that most parents do pay (50USD per school year), so the children were not supposed to remove the laptops from school.They did anyway My son has one of these laptops, my daughter will next year, they have the option of taping over the cam anytime they want to cover it.

Little known fact about Middle Earth: The Hobbits had a very sophisticated computer network! It was a Tolkien Ring...

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