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February 19, 2010 permalink
A Pennsylvania school has found a new way to watch its students naked. They gave each student a laptop computer with a webcam that could be operated by remote control. Students were disciplined for actions inside their own home that violated school policy.
You can read the class action complaint (pdf) by primary plaintiff Blake J Robbins. The expand block contains a blog article followed by the school district response, which admits that the remote-control webcams were used.
If this is true—it's damn frightening.
This is one of the more troubling stories that I've read in a long time. What I'm reading is the court filing in a lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District, on behalf of the minor, Blake Robbins, filed by his parents.
The school district issued laptops to the students. The laptops had webcams installed. In legalese the suit contends that the school district has "been spying on the activities of Plaintiffs and Class members (Blake and other students)" through the "indiscriminant use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District." '
The law suit contends that none of the literature given to students and their parents contains any reference "to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webacam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera at the time of the activation."
In other words, the government school district issued laptops to students and the district could activate the webcam and use it to spy on students anytime the computer was turned out. This was done without informing people this was possible and can be done without the knowledge of the computer user. Consider where students are likely to have their computers. It is not unusual for a student to take a laptop into their bedroom, where they undress, change clothes and engage in otherwise, very private activities. Yet school district bureaucrats can remotely use the students laptop to watch these activities.
This new method of spying on students, in the privacy of their home, was revealed when Blake was told by the Assistant Principal of Harrington High School, Lindy Matsko, that he "was engaged in improper behavior in his home." As proof of this improper behaviour the school showed him "a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff's personal laptop issued by the School District."
Blake's father, Michale, "verified, through Ms. Matsko, that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students' personal laptop computer issued by the School District at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer." Equally important is that this can be done so it "will capture anything happening in the room in which the laptop computer is located, regardless of whether the student is sitting at the computer and using it."
The suit says: "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."
Unless the allegations in the suit are entirely invented by the family, which seems unlikely, this indicates a dangerous new method of putting the public under surveillance. The law suit is making claims based on laws that are supposed to protect privacy, due process for surveillance, and similar manners. I think they should go for the jugular.
Let us make a few points to law the foundation for having the School District arrested and tried as sex offenders. The District gave laptops to 1800 teenage students. In the laptop was a webcam that could be turned on by government bureaucrats to observe those students at any time, including in the privacy of their home. Almost 100% of these students will, at one time or another, engage in legal sexual activity in the privacy of their bedroom. By legal I mean either with another teen considered legally capable of consenting, or in masturbatory activity. With 1800 students engaging in such sex acts the possibility that computer will be sitting there is very high. And government bureaucrats may be watching said activity. Thus the School District has created a webcam operation which shows teens engaged in sexual activity.
It is entirely possible that the signals could be intercepted as well, by others, who may view these "sex webcam shows" that the School District created. The School District officials who set up the program, those who implemented the system, and all school officials who may view these webcams should thus be investigated immediately for the production and dissemination of child pornography. All those found involved should be required to register as sex offenders. In teens who engage in "sexting" voluntarily are arrested then why wouldn't it be a crime for school officials to drag teens involuntarily into something equally explicit?
This is precisely what these School Districts do to teens who engages in "sexting." School Districts, that discover that students voluntarily, and consensually, photograph themselves in the nude, routinely have those students arrested as child pornographers. So why should school officials, doing the same thing, but without the consent of the teens involved, be treated any differently? Criminal charges should be filed immediately.
In fact, along with the law suit, I think parents should file criminal complaints against the School District for the recording and dissemination of child pornographer because the District could watch underage students in the nude, or engaged in sexual activity.
The School District admits that the computers came with the remote webcam feature, which it claims, is only used "to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen" and that it is not used "for any other purpose." But Blake was disciplined for improper activity at home, which had nothing to do with a lost, missing or stolen computer. A photo, taken using the webcam, was provided to him as proof of his action. This indicates that the feature was, in fact, used for purposes other than tracking missing computers.
And while the School District says that the webcams will only be turned on, in the future, with the "express written notification to all students and families"—notice it doesn't require their consent, only that they be told it will be done—there is nothing to prevent school officials from turning on the feature, without notification, if only to browse for titillating scenes. What parent would take this sort of assurance seriously?
What the new policy boils down to is that the school district, or individual employees of the district, will have the ability to turn on the webcam at will, but promise they won't do so without warning students in advance. And, if the officials, don't announce they did it, but still do it anyway, how is that monitored? What assurances do parents have that school officials aren't getting their jollies by turning on the webcams during the hours students would be preparing for bed? The School District continues to have the ability to spy on students anytime it, or any one with access to the systems, wishes and all parents get is the promise that this won't be done. In other words, there is absolutely nothing to stop it happening but the solemn promise of a bunch of government bureaucrats—and we all know what that is worth.
posted by CLS at 2/19/2010 12:22:00 AM DiggIt! Reddit Del.icio.us Slashdot Slashdot It!
Source: Classically Liberal
Lower Merion School District Announcements
LMSD initial 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
| Posted: 2/18/10 at 4:54 PM | Updated: 2/19/10 at 8:02 AM
Source: Lower Merion School District
Addendum: When the scandal broke school officials tried to minimize the scope of the surveillance, but is has been disclosed that nearly 56 thousand images were taken. Other reports suggest school staffers amused themselves by scanning through the pictures.
Lower Merion details scope of Web-cam surveillance
Lower Merion School District employees activated the Web cameras and Internet address tracking software on laptops they gave to high school students about 146 times during the last two school years, snapping nearly 56,000 images, district investigators have concluded.
In 48 of those activations, images were recovered; 68 showed only the computer's Internet address. The rest showed nothing or could not be recovered.
The images included photos of students, pictures inside their homes, and copies of the programs or files on their screens, the investigators said.
The district will give a full report at a school board meeting on May 3.
In most of the cases, technicians turned on the system after a student or staffer reported a laptop missing and turned it off when the machine was found, the investigators determined.
But in at least five instances, school employees let the Web cams keep clicking for days or weeks after students found their missing laptops, according to the review. Those computers - programmed to snap a photo and capture a screenshot every 15 minutes when the machine was on - fired nearly 13,000 images back to the school-district servers.
"This is where a significant mistake has been made," Henry Hockeimer, the district's lawyer, said at a school board meeting Monday night. "Clearly those trackings should have been turned off earlier."
The data, which Hockeimer presented to the board after making it available to The Inquirer earlier in the day, represents the most detailed account yet of how and when Lower Merion used the remote tracking system, a practice that has sparked a civil rights lawsuit, an FBI investigation, and new federal legislation.
Hockeimer declined to describe in detail any of the recovered Web-cam photos, or identify the people in them or their surroundings. He said none appeared to be "salacious or inappropriate" images but said that in no way justified the use of the program.
"The taking of these pictures without student consent in their homes was obviously wrong," Hockeimer said.
A federal magistrate judge is expected this week to begin the process of arranging for parents whose children were photographed to privately view the photos.
Hockeimer said that the district's internal investigation was ongoing and that the numbers could change. He said the board authorized him to release the information in response to a court motion filed last week by Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins, whose lawsuit contends the program invaded his privacy.
In the motion, Robbins' attorney, Mark Haltzman, argued that the now-disabled system surreptitiously collected more than 400 photos of his client - including shots of him when he was shirtless and while he slept in his bed last fall - as well as thousands of images from other students' computers.
The numbers disclosed by the district Monday confirmed that assertion and added clarity.
Lower Merion began using the system after deciding to give each of its nearly 2,300 high school students a laptop. The program started in 2008 at Harriton High School and expanded this school year to Lower Merion High.
In addition to the photos and screenshots, the technology also used the laptop's Internet address to pinpoint its location. The system was designed to automatically purge all the images after the tracking was deactivated.
Hockeimer said that lawyers from his firm, Ballard Spahr, and specialists from L3, a computer forensics firm, have used e-mails, voice mails, and network data to piece together how often, when, and why school officials used the technology.
The "vast majority" of instances, he said, represent cases in which the technology appeared to be used for the reasons the district first implemented it in 2008: to find a lost or stolen laptop or, in a few cases, when a student took the computer without paying a required insurance fee.
About 38,500 images - or almost two-thirds of the total number retrieved so far - came from six laptops that were reported missing from the Harriton gymnasium in September 2008. The tracking system continued to store images from those computers for nearly six months, until police recovered them and charged a suspect with theft in March 2009.
The next biggest chunk of images stems from the five or so laptops on which employees failed or forgot to turn off the tracking software, even after the student recovered the computer.
In a few other cases, Hockeimer said, the team has been unable to recover images or photos stored by the tracking system. In about 15 activations, investigators have been unable to identify why a student's laptop was being monitored.
Hockeimer said that the investigation found that administrators activated the tracking system for just one student this year who failed to pay the $55 insurance fee.
Robbins says he is that student. Hockeimer declined to confirm or deny that.
About 10 employees at the district and its two high schools had the authority to request the computer administrators to activate the tracking system on a student's laptop, Hockeimer said.
Only two employees - information systems coordinator Carol Cafiero and network technician Mike Perbix - could actually turn on and off the tracking. Hockeimer said the district investigators have no evidence to suggest either Perbix or Cafiero activated the system without being asked.
But the requests were loose and disorganized, he said, sometimes amounting to just a brief e-mail.
"The whole situation was riddled with the problem of not having any written policies and procedures in place," Hockeimer said. "And that impacted so much of what happened here."
Robbins has claimed that an assistant principal confronted him in November with a Web-cam photo of him in his bedroom. Robbins said that the photo shows him with a handful of Mike & Ike candies, but that the assistant principal thought they were drugs.
His attorney, Haltzman, greeted Hockeimer's statement skeptically. "I wish the school district would have come clean earlier, as soon as they had this information and not waiting until something was filed in court revealing the extent of the spying," he said.
Michael Boni, the father of a Harriton High School student and a leader of lmsdparents.org, which is seeking to minimize the expense of the Robbins lawsuit while pushing for a thorough investigation, said of Hockeimer's disclosures: "We welcome the transparency; we see this as a good first step."
He added that his group wants "the school district to be held accountable and, most of all, we want the district to look ahead and develop a set of policies and procedures that makes sure this will never happen again."
Ru Freeman, one of the founders of Parents in Support of the Lower Merion School District, said, "I think it's important for all of us parents to stay calm and wait until all the information is out after the judicial process is complete."
Mike Salmanson, father of a district second grader, said, "The fact that a system that allowed the monitoring of people without their consent was used in such a loose and disorganized way gives me great doubts about whether the school board and the administration realized the serious privacy issues involved."
Hockeimer said Monday night that earlier in the day he met with attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and concerned parents to fashion a permanent injunction that would lead to "policies and procedures to prevent anything like this from happening again."
Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 610-313-8120 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Dan Hardy contributed to this article.
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Addendum: Case settled.
School District Pays $610,000 to Settle Webcam Spying Lawsuits
A suburban Philadelphia school district is agreeing to pay $610,000 to settle two lawsuits brought by students who were victims of a webcam spying scandal in which high school-issued laptops secretly snapped thousands of pictures of pupils.
The agreed payout by the Lower Merion School District comes two months after federal authorities announced they would not prosecute administrators.
Prosecutors and the FBI opened an inquiry following a February privacy lawsuit accusing administrators of spying on students with webcams on the 2,300 district-issued MacBooks. The lawyers who filed lawsuits on behalf of two students acquired evidence in pretrial proceedings showing that the district secretly snapped thousands of webcam images of students, including pictures of youths at home, in bed or even “partially dressed.”
In an announcement Tuesday, the Board of School Directors agreed to pay $175,0000 to student Blake Robbins, and $10,000 for former pupil Jalil Hasan. As much as $425,000 in legal fees will be paid to their legal team, led by Mark Haltzman.
“Bottom line, it is time to resolve this matter and ensure that the District’s resources are focused squarely on educating our children,” the district said in a statement. The district has maintained that it only activated the LANrev Theft Track program when a computer was reported lost or stolen.
It said that its insurer, Graphic Arts, had agreed to pay $1.2 million in costs associated with the district’s defense.
The 6,900-pupil district, which provides students from its two high schools free MacBooks, was sued in federal court on allegations it was undertaking a dragnet surveillance program targeting its students — an allegation the district has repeatedly denied.
The original suit was based on a claim by Robbins, a sophomore at the time, that school officials reprimanded him for “improper behavior” based on photos the computer secretly took of the boy at home last fall. One picture shows him asleep at home last October.
That “behavior” turned out to be pill popping. The family said their son was eating Mike and Ike candy, his lawyer claimed.
In all, about 400 photos were taken of Robbins. The tracking software on Hasan’s computer snapped as many as 469 photographs and 543 screenshots of the former senior.