Revealed: How schools use laptop webcams to spy on students [Video]

Last week Neowin reported on a shocking case at the Lower Merion High School district in Pennsylvania, U.S. The FBI confirmed later that they will be opening up a criminal investigation over the matter.

Students issued laptops in the aforementioned district were given computers that could have their webcams remotely activated at the will of the school administrators. The practice had been in place for the past 14 months but was only discovered recently when a school punished a student named Blake Robbins for "improper behavior in his home," with the Vice Principal even providing a photo as evidence.  A class action suit has been filed against the school, on behalf of all students issued the laptops.

The School issued a response to the recent reports and stated "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." The school say they remotely activated webcams 42 times to find missing student laptops in the past 14 months, but never did so to spy on students, as the lawsuit claims. Dr. Christopher McGinley, Superintendent at the Lower Merion School District also said the school was sorry for its actions. "We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families," he said.

Boing Boing reports that an example of how schools monitor their students with laptop webcams has been discovered. US broadcasting service, PBS, published a documentary entitled "How Google saved a school". The piece contains a segment from Assistant Principal Dan Ackerman at Intermediate School 339 Bronx, NY. Ackerman describes how he can enable webcams remotely and check what applications and websites are being visited by students. It seems the children in this particular school are aware teachers can remotely monitor them but it's not clear if they are aware of when this monitoring takes place. Regardless, the video raises some concerns over the technology and whether it's a violation of the students privacy.

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when i read this section i thought to myself pedophiles

"The practice had been in place for the past 14 months but was only discovered recently when a school punished a student named Blake Robbins for "improper behavior in his home," with the Vice Principal even providing a photo as evidence. A class action suit has been filed against the school, on behalf of all students issued the laptops."

Regardless of the _Intent_, the fact that this ability is installed is absolutely unacceptable.

Intent does not make something OK. Take government level internet filtering for example "we're only going to use it to block bad stuff that is illegal anyway", the turn around of that is that it is possible to censor politically sensitive information like in China.

The correct action is for no monitoring, and no censorship. Don't let fear cloud your judgement and allow your freedoms to be taken from you.

Ah, America, land of the free and ho....wait that's not right is it, Land of the rich and Hell of the poor.

In my day we got by fine with a pen & paper.

uninstall webcam driver ?

either way as much as they wish to try and justify it that's just disgusting invading a person even if it is a childs privacy like that... Unless everyone's given ability to do it even to teachers then it I don't think it has any reasonable purpose what so ever.

If the notebooks are provided by the school, then I don't see anything wrong with what they're doing. Students should be using the notebooks for school purposes, not taking photos of themselves, or whatever. I do not see how this is an invasion of privacy. It is the equivalent to an employee using the company's system to perform non-work functions. There is no expectation of privacy.

If the students want privacy, then they need to go out and buy themselves (or their parents) a computer. Problem solved.

Hurmoth said,
Students should be using the notebooks for school purposes, not taking photos of themselves, or whatever.

If I understand correctly the student didn't have to be taking photos of themselves. They could've been getting on with school work.

Put a piece of tape on the camera eye and this "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." crap will turn useless. They won't be able to locate the laptop. It's pure BS as I said before.

Well, if GPS units are that expensive it was possible instead activating the cam to activate the speakers and make them make a big noise
anything is better than allowing spying on students, not that easily atleast

Andrew Lyle said,
a piece of tape would fix everything.

Sorry but no.

A GPS locate which could avoid this breach of privacy, and some goddam trust and respect for the law would fix everything.

I hope the FBi jails those responsible.

Andrew Lyle said,
a piece of tape would fix everything.

Having school officials not spying on kids and being perverts would fix a lot more than a piece of tape. These people need to be charged under child predatory laws and nailed to the cross for their actions.

If the students are made aware of this prior to having the laptop issued to them, I'm fine with it so long as it only works on school property. The case where the student was at home and punished for "inappropriate behavior in his home" sounds like total crap to me. If the laptop is off campus, the school should not be able to view the web camera remotely. Obviously they should still be able to monitor websites the student uses, but why on earth don't they just restrict that too so they can only access certain sites?

Too big a can of worms they should just not bother.

Yeah, I agree fully. There is software I think that can be installed on the machine that only allows users to visit specific categories of sites (education ones etc) .

Edited by Chris, Feb 26 2010, 8:10pm :

green_link said,

couldn't have said it better myself

Problem with that is they would then probably punish the lad/lass for vandalism, the attitude here stinks as said before GPS locater=problem solved.

This stinks of perversion, I'm amazed the parents are not suing.

Elven said,

Problem with that is they would then probably punish the lad/lass for vandalism, the attitude here stinks as said before GPS locater=problem solved.

This stinks of perversion, I'm amazed the parents are not suing.

Don't get me wrong, it's definitely wrong. I'm just pointing out how easy it is to defeat. They can't determine if the laptop has tape over it from the camera.

Solid Knight said,
Put a piece of electrical tape over the camera.

Exactly. Not that I have any kind of a school laptop or anything, I just do anyways... I've heard it's possible for to hack cameras but it's not common. Plus the rest of the laptop is black so a little piece on top of the lens blends right in.

Edited by Tha Bloo Monkee, Feb 26 2010, 8:18pm :

java2beans said,
If the kids start stripping, wouldn't the teachers be charged for child pornography?

If I was the parent and the camera had caught my son/daughter undressed, damn straight I would be charging them, but then who knows, I mean how LONG was this going on for?

If the kid had a proper firewall at home, this wouldn't be an issue.

Plus, if the kid is mucking around in Photo Booth, and he knows the school can check in on his computer, why would he be doing stupid crap/taking inappropriate pictures or whatever. Idiot. The school can't just spy on you through your webcam without knowing. It only works if they open up something like Photo Booth or iChat, and the kid can definitely know at that point.

Elliott said,
If the kid had a proper firewall at home, this wouldn't be an issue.

So really it's the kid's fault for not being in IT....LOL! That's a new one. You should be a lawyer.


Plus, if the kid is mucking around in Photo Booth, and he knows the school can check in on his computer, why would he be doing stupid crap/taking inappropriate pictures or whatever. Idiot.

Where does it say that is what he was doing. You are extrapolating pretty far here and then using your extrapolation to claim this kid is an idiot.


The school can't just spy on you through your webcam without knowing. It only works if they open up something like Photo Booth or iChat, and the kid can definitely know at that point.

So because he could not detect that he was being spied on, then it IS really his fault he was being spied on in the first place. Your logic astounds me.

but was only discovered recently when a school punished a student named Blake Robbins for "improper behavior in his home," with the Vice Principal even providing a photo as evidence.

Is contrary to:

The school say they remotely activated webcams 42 times to find missing student laptops in the past 14 months, but never did so to spy on students, as the lawsuit claims.

I agree with Shadrack, if the school was not using the cameras to spy on their students, how did they have photo evidence of the student misbehaving at home?

They install security cameras in the student's home? Did the Ass. Principal just happen to be at the student's home with a camera?

I don't think so...

Edited by lexa000, Feb 26 2010, 9:38pm :

all this needs is for one of those little girls to lift her shirt right as the laptop is taking a picture, and boom, school busted for child pornography.

shakey said,
all this needs is for one of those little girls to lift her shirt right as the laptop is taking a picture, and boom, school busted for child pornography.

If they were watching all the time, I would say that it is very likely that they have seen such scenes...

I think the intent is correct but the usage can come into question. But you have to remember that as a student you are given a piece of property from a school as a "educational tool" and not as a "personal laptop" and it should be used as such. Students who are given the laptops are orientated as what is and is not acceptable usage. Some say GPS but what if the laptop was stolen and the thief was caught on the camera used to track it down? Well then people would say hey that really worked! But since a "single" person at a school decided to break protocol "everyone" is having a field day with it.

A third party company can take over the recovery process for the school system that issues the laptops. They can only activate the monitoring with approval based on actual evidence or reports that the laptop was stolen or missing. This will provide a checks/balances procedure to lessen the likely hood of spying.

I hope that the mistake of one person does not bring down the school or the program. I know you can simplify the laptops with only GPS and not have cameras built into the frame. Or have them disabled before they are configured for student use. But there are teaching potential with cameras as well. People have to take a look at it an objective viewpoint. A student is not feeling well and would like to attend the class via video. There are several positive uses for it but it has to be thought out and implemented correctly.

You are making a LOT of assumptions without any facts.

We don't know if this is an isolated incident affecting one person. We only know that one person was alerted to the fact they were caught doing something improper.

It is possible an entire security team has been watching all of the students using this technology under orders from the district. In either case, people are going to jail for this one.

Edited by excalpius, Feb 26 2010, 3:09pm :

There is nothing correct about this.

mrmomoman said,
I think the intent is correct but the usage can come into question. But you have to remember that as a student you are given a piece of property from a school as a "educational tool" and not as a "personal laptop" and it should be used as such. Students who are given the laptops are orientated as what is and is not acceptable usage. Some say GPS but what if the laptop was stolen and the thief was caught on the camera used to track it down? Well then people would say hey that really worked! But since a "single" person at a school decided to break protocol "everyone" is having a field day with it.

A third party company can take over the recovery process for the school system that issues the laptops. They can only activate the monitoring with approval based on actual evidence or reports that the laptop was stolen or missing. This will provide a checks/balances procedure to lessen the likely hood of spying.

I hope that the mistake of one person does not bring down the school or the program. I know you can simplify the laptops with only GPS and not have cameras built into the frame. Or have them disabled before they are configured for student use. But there are teaching potential with cameras as well. People have to take a look at it an objective viewpoint. A student is not feeling well and would like to attend the class via video. There are several positive uses for it but it has to be thought out and implemented correctly.

For those who didn't notice, the administrator there was watching the kid's screen, not their webcam. They just had the photo booth application open on their laptop. (Screen monitoring is nothing new, the computers at my high school have that.)

As for webcam monitoring, as long as the laptops were reported lost or stolen, it should have been fine. It's more of a tool to determine who has the laptop than to determine where it is; the thief would likely be a student.

Silverskull said,
Screen monitoring is nothing new, the computers at my high school have that

But that is in school and without access to your private life outside of school

nub said,

But that is in school and without access to your private life outside of school


True, and if administrators are using this technology outside of school there has to be a pretty good reason. However... do we even know what sort of pictures were taken and why the laptops were being monitored? Without that information, it's hard to come to any sort of conclusion about this.

Silverskull said,
(Screen monitoring is nothing new, the computers at my high school have that.)

Yeah. But it was pretty easy to bypass.
Simply use a program that gets the admin password for the BIOS, get in the BIOS, make the optical drive boot first, boot a livecd, get the password for windows, boot in safe mode, log on in safe mode as admin, delete the .exe for the monitor program, and presto; Teachers dont know what hit them...

logiosasuna said,

Yeah. But it was pretty easy to bypass.
Simply use a program that gets the admin password for the BIOS, get in the BIOS, make the optical drive boot first, boot a livecd, get the password for windows, boot in safe mode, log on in safe mode as admin, delete the .exe for the monitor program, and presto; Teachers dont know what hit them...

Or just delete the exe while you're booted into the livecd...?

I don't like the webcam monitoring at all. That is just creepy but I don't have a problem if they can see what applications are running or the history of the computer. Your job and employer probably do that on your work computer. In the case of the PA school, they would not let a student use his personal laptop which is stupid. that saves the district money

"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."

Was that student's laptop reported stolen? If not than this statement is full of crap.

"We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families,"

Inconvenience? What!? You actually call this an inconvenience?

wtf, that guy creeps me out kinda..."look i can take a picture of them if i want to" he seemed to enjoy how easy it is to monitor what they're doing a bit too much

What program are they even using to monitor the kids/turn on the webcam, when they're at home?

Chemaz said,

What program are they even using to monitor the kids/turn on the webcam, when they're at home?


This:

http://www.bensoftware.com/ss/

Azies said,
reinstall OS X if that's the OS their using, but still it's a huge violation of privacy.

You really think the school would let you reinstall their system? LOL

Azies said,
reinstall OS X if that's the OS their using, but still it's a huge violation of privacy.

There's an EFI password on the MacBook that prevents a student from doing anything (like changing the boot drive).

Elliott said,

There's an EFI password on the MacBook that prevents a student from doing anything (like changing the boot drive).


Warning: The Open Firmware Password can be reset and changed by any one of the following (except MacBook Air):

By any administrator user, as designated in the Accounts preferences (or in Server Admin).
Via physical access to the inside of the computer.
When the computer is started up in Mac OS 9.


Take a laptop home.
Don't connect to the internet
Remove the password.
Format.
Away with this stupid spy program.