Home Your Tech Home Tech US school spies on students at home

A US school has been accused of spying on a student at his home via the in-built webcam in the school-provided laptop.

There were tales and rumours around the student body at Harriton High School, part of the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania, that the webcam green light on their school-supplied MacBooks would turn on (to indicate a live camera) at unexpected, random moments.

The School authorities always said that this was due to "a glitch" and that to back this up, indicated that they would never turn on the camera except for a lost or stolen machine.  A number of students didn't necessarily agree with the explanation and regularly covered the webcam with tape or chewing gum.

The Robbins family caught the school out in a big lie.

On November 11th 2009, their 15-year-old son Blake was disciplined by his school's assistant principal Lindy Matsko as he had "engaged in improper behaviour in [his] home."  The 'fun' part was that Matsko provided a photograph of the improper behaviour taken by the webcam in Blake's school-provided laptop.

Comments from other students in various press reports suggest that Blake was doing what 15-year-old boys regularly do in the privacy of their bedrooms.  But whatever he was doing is totally beside the point.

Let me put this straight.  There is NO reason that could possibly justify any person from the school viewing whatever could be seen from the laptop's webcam at the home of the student.


Obviously there have been widely reported instances in the past where the owner of a stolen laptop had managed to take a photo of the thief (which was immediately passed to the police) but this is completely different.

Blake's parents (and their lawyers) agreed and have filed a civil action against the school district.

According to the legal filing, "Plaintiffs and the Class [the suit seeks class action status] seek to recover damages caused to the Plaintiffs and Class by Defendants' invasion of Plaintiff's privacy, theft of Plaintiff's private information and unlawful interception and access to acquired and exported data and other stored electronic communications in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, The Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, version 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act and Pennsylvania common law."

The filing continues, "An examination of all of the written documentation accompanying the laptop, as well as documentation appearing on any website or handed out to students or parents concerning the use of the laptop, reveals that no reference is made to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam at any time the school district wishes to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera at the time of activation."

Additionally, "As the laptops at issue were routinely used by students and family members while at home, it 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."


As soon as the legal action was filed, reports suggest that the school's principal used the PA system to declare the claims to be untrue.  In addition, a letter, from the School District Superintendent of Schools, was send to all parents attempting to 'explain' the situation. 

In part, it states, "Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. District laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. The security feature, which was disabled today, 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.

"Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature would be activated by the District's security and technology departments. The security feature's capabilities were limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator's screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."

Really?  In that case, how did Matsko come to be in possession of the 'incriminating image?

In the entire letter, no mention was made of the Robbins case, the still image or the frequent reports of camera activation by other students.

One can only assume that, in addition to the civil action filed by the family, the local Police will be interested in chatting to Matsko and possibly others (depending on who else was triggering the little green lights) with the possibility of charges related to unlawful images of minors.

There is much more to see in this case.  Stay tuned.

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David Heath

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David Heath has over 25 years experience in the IT industry, specializing particularly in customer support, security and computer networking. Heath has worked previously as head of IT for The Television Shopping Network, as the network and desktop manager for Armstrong Jones (a major funds management organization) and has consulted into various Australian federal government agencies (including the Department of Immigration and the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence). He has also served on various state, national and international committees for Novell Users International; he was also the organising chairman for the 1994 Novell Users' Conference in Brisbane. Heath is currently employed as an Instructional Designer, building technical training courses for industrial process control systems.

 

 

 

 

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