School uses laptop webcams to spy on students

For many students, renting laptops from schools to use is an effective and inexpensive way to get work done. Even some universities offer the same deal, but no student ever stops to ask, what cost do the laptops truly come at? For those enrolled in schools around the Lower Merion High School district, it may very well cost you almost all of your privacy.

Students issued laptops in the aforementioned district were given computers that could have their webcams remotely activated at the will of the school administrators, though it's unclear how long the disturbing practice had gone on for. It 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. According to Boing Boing, a class action suit has been filed against the school, on behalf of all students issued the laptops.

This truly is a frightening event for students and parents, and is one of the most disturbing violations of privacy in recent news. Schools are constantly telling students to be careful with their privacy, and not to let anybody online know too much about them, but it's hard to stay private when you're being spied on by your own school – people you should be able to trust – in your very own home. You can read the class action suit details here, in .PDF format.

Photo Credit: Flickr

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Nihilus said,
Does anyone else really, *really* want to know what that kid was doing? :P

I'm curious from the standpoint of "What could the principal possibly have felt need disciplining..." I mean I'm king of at a loss as to what the school would have actually gotten involved in in that way.

Nihilus said,
Does anyone else really, *really* want to know what that kid was doing? :P

Apparently he was accused of selling drugs which he denies:
http://www.safekids.com/tag/blake-robbins/

bluekelt said,

Apparently he was accused of selling drugs which he denies:
http://www.safekids.com/tag/blake-robbins/

Additionally:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35491285/

this looks like it is straight from the book little brother by Cory Doctorow

available free and legal at http://www.feedbooks.com/book/2466

i am still in the process of reading this book but i thought i lost my mind and was still reading this ebook when i looked at neowin.. too similar :)

HOLY CRAP!

what also interesting, is that there must be people in this world who seriously think they can get away with perverted stuff like this.

probably the opinion of "it's just students" also plays a large role, which, i must say, is a often met one.
"just youth", "youth has to..." THIS is a big "F* YOU!" for those people going to school there and crazy treating like this and following the same principle other stuff, too, that may also be less bad, leads to youngsters not gaining trust in adults, anger builds up, respectlessness, etc...

this is what P*** me off real bad.
although i'm no student anymore, but youth in general deserves more respect.
you want respect from youngster? give THEM respect also.
(the sentence "youth is a product of our society only, too" comes to mind)

GRRRR...

Glassed Silver:mac

and how many of us sit round at home wearing nothing much come on can't tell me the principal wasn't some dirty ole perv doin this for his jollies... burn the buggars at the stake or at least a public flogging or stoning i say

Athlonite said,
and how many of us sit round at home wearing nothing much come on can't tell me the principal wasn't some dirty ole perv doin this for his jollies... burn the buggars at the stake or at least a public flogging or stoning i say

wow... how grown up and way much better than a working democracy that is.
really, your idea of human rights is awfully interesting.

Glassed Silver:mac

Whether or not he gets charged or any suit actually goes ahead, I think this guy will be out of a job. No parent in their right mind would allow their kids to go back to a school that has staff that do that stuff. I would keep my kid home from school and demand that all who are responsible for this action be removed or else my son isn't going back to that school.

dogmai said,
Whether or not he gets charged or any suit actually goes ahead, I think this guy will be out of a job. No parent in their right mind would allow their kids to go back to a school that has staff that do that stuff. I would keep my kid home from school and demand that all who are responsible for this action be removed or else my son isn't going back to that school.

Yeah, now for the finger pointing to begin at the school...

Disturbing to say the least. That principal overstepped his bounds invading the privacy of a home and who knows if it was done before to other students? As was mentioned before, those involved need to be relieved of their duties.

Sadly privacy is almost an illusion in our modern day society. This incident is shocking but not unexpected. Without being too paranoid, who knows what can be done with modern day electronics without our consent. Time to tape shut those laptop webcams folks!! I have one here at work, and it's turned away from me, until I use it, just to be careful.

The really scary thought here is if this have been used earlier of those familiar with this system to look at girls/boys in their bedrooms. Or even if they've taken their clothes of for their loved ones in the camera.

This is horrible wrong in so many ways!

Right, should have read the contract parents/students that you agreed to when you got the laptop. ha!

war said,
Right, should have read the contract parents/students that you agreed to when you got the laptop. ha!

Still doesn't give them the right to watch your children in your own home. Doesn't matter what you sign. Your house is your own private property, you have the right to privacy with or without a contract signed by the student and/or parents.

Wow, just wow. I think there should definately be some criminal charges. And in my opinion if it didn't happen on school property then it's none of the school's business. If anything like that happened to my kid I'd be furious.

Admiral Michael said,
Wow, just wow. I think there should definately be some criminal charges. And in my opinion if it didn't happen on school property then it's none of the school's business. If anything like that happened to my kid I'd be furious.

Picketing and protesting in front of the school with signs saying what they did and who they are.

This is actually within 15 minutes of my house. It's everywhere on the Internet now. Really sad. I'll provide any updates if I can.

One would have to assume the parents had to sign some time of legal binding agreement before their kid was just given a laptop to use. Not saying this is morally right but, if it's in the contract they don't have anything to legally fight it.

I'm sure it has to say something or make reference to a policy letter. I'd like to see what the contract states before passing judgement.

Rohdekill said,
One would have to assume the parents had to sign some time of legal binding agreement before their kid was just given a laptop to use. Not saying this is morally right but, if it's in the contract they don't have anything to legally fight it.

I'm sure it has to say something or make reference to a policy letter. I'd like to see what the contract states before passing judgement.

Contracts don't mean anything when they break the law. Spying on under-age kids is pretty much illegal in most respectable places.

Pretty sure their is no way they can word "We may spy on your kids naked at home" in the contract and get away with it.

Unplugged said,

Contracts don't mean anything when they break the law. Spying on under-age kids is pretty much illegal in most respectable places.

Pretty sure their is no way they can word "We may spy on your kids naked at home" in the contract and get away with it.

No, think of it this way... the PARENTS KNOW the webcam can be enabled by their signing the agreement. The Child is the responsibility of the parent. If a child decides to strip naked in front of a webcam that is known to be remote accessed, it is not the viewers fault. That would make as much logic as arresting security at walmart for child porn because a parent walked in with their child, read the "security cameras are in use" and told the child to strip naked.

Viewing a remote webcam, with full permission is NOT illegal. It IS illegal for the minor to know this and disrobe.

Edited by Rohdekill, Feb 20 2010, 12:45am :

Unplugged said,

Contracts don't mean anything when they break the law. Spying on under-age kids is pretty much illegal in most respectable places.

Pretty sure their is no way they can word "We may spy on your kids naked at home" in the contract and get away with it.

+1

Forgive me for my ignorance, but on all my laptops past and preset (Dells, VAIOs and MacBooks) there has been a light that comes on whenever the Webcam is active.... is this not the case with all of them?

J400uk said,
...... there has been a light that comes on whenever the Webcam is active.... is this not the case with all of them?
On my MS Lifecam Cinema using a different driver from MS's, I am able to turn off the LED light. If that is possible, then I am sure other webcams can have their settings tweaked. Guess you have to cover it up if there is any concern. Next question now is "What to do with the mic?"

if it was me i would just put a sticker over the webcam / image the drive / install my own copy on linux or windows & if they came to me asking they cant get in i would just tell them that was the point snoop somewhere else

sCrAtCh420th said,
if it was me i would just put a sticker over the webcam / image the drive / install my own copy on linux or windows & if they came to me asking they cant get in i would just tell them that was the point snoop somewhere else

lol I know a few of my friends that are paranoid and stick blu-tak or similar over their web-cams when not in use.

If they want people to study better, you don't spy on them, you encourage them perhaps getting them more involved in group work and such, I see there point in seeing if the students do homework on their property but this is totally the wrong way to go about it.

Look at the 360 family settings for example much better, rather than being intruding, you can do things perhaps better such as a time limit on the laptop so not to go on facebook all the time, or make a school search engine for school material so your not censoring the internet but more making it for homework.

I feel the school may get away with it because the students probably had to sign a deceleration, that's why you should always read the small print before you sign =).

bucko said,
If they want people to study better, you don't spy on them, you encourage them perhaps getting them more involved in group work and such, I see there point in seeing if the students do homework on their property but this is totally the wrong way to go about it.

Look at the 360 family settings for example much better, rather than being intruding, you can do things perhaps better such as a time limit on the laptop so not to go on facebook all the time, or make a school search engine for school material so your not censoring the internet but more making it for homework.

I feel the school may get away with it because the students probably had to sign a deceleration, that's why you should always read the small print before you sign =).

Decleration or not, if the decleration was to enable them to do something that is deemed illegal than it voids the decleration. Again, I don't know the laws over there but over here, having a contract and signed by the victim/plaintiff doesn't make it legal. They can still be brought up on charges and/or sued.

dogmai said,

Decleration or not, if the decleration was to enable them to do something that is deemed illegal than it voids the decleration. Again, I don't know the laws over there but over here, having a contract and signed by the victim/plaintiff doesn't make it legal. They can still be brought up on charges and/or sued.

There's nothing illegal if the parents signed and agreed to allow such monitoring to occur. It's only illegal if it were not agreed upon or done outside the contract without notification.

Rohdekill said,

There's nothing illegal if the parents signed and agreed to allow such monitoring to occur. It's only illegal if it were not agreed upon or done outside the contract without notification.

If the act itself is illegal, than the contract is void. It would be like signing a contract saying that the school can give the kids crack or some other drug. Just because the parents signed the contract doesn't make what they did legal and therefore can still be brought up on charges. I'm not saying that's the case or really comparing it to drugs. I'm just saying IF it is deemed to be illegal, than they can be brought up on charges with or without a contract.

dogmai said,

If the act itself is illegal, than the contract is void. It would be like signing a contract saying that the school can give the kids crack or some other drug. Just because the parents signed the contract doesn't make what they did legal and therefore can still be brought up on charges. I'm not saying that's the case or really comparing it to drugs. I'm just saying IF it is deemed to be illegal, than they can be brought up on charges with or without a contract.

The act of viewing a remote webcam with permission is now illegal??!!

This is why the first thing I did when I got a school issued Laptop was make an image of it, then wipe it and put my own OS and Programs on.. Then put the image back at the end of the year..

I never trust preinstalled software, regardless of the source.

+1

Yeah, I'd have definitely done the same. No way am I going to rely on someone else's "trust" that there's nothing on the laptop. Sorry but my information, my passwords, my work... will not be saved on someone else's config.

Ryoken said,
This is why the first thing I did when I got a school issued Laptop was make an image of it, then wipe it and put my own OS and Programs on.. Then put the image back at the end of the year..

I never trust preinstalled software, regardless of the source.

That's a good idea for anyone who gets school issued laptops. Too bad a lot of them probably don't know how to do that or can/want to spend money to do it.

Ryoken said,
This is why the first thing I did when I got a school issued Laptop was make an image of it, then wipe it and put my own OS and Programs on.. Then put the image back at the end of the year..

I never trust preinstalled software, regardless of the source.

Great idea, unfortunately not always possible due to Active Directory environments (IE, you can't join it back to the domain, and therefor can't access AD controlled resources).

So when I was in a private high school like 20 years ago it was a common practice to punish students for their behavior outside school if it goes away from the school values and ideals.. I remember being sent to detention for certainly unfair reasons, like being seen by one of the teachers on a friday evening a little drunk, and it was mostly accepted by parents.
However, this case sounds terribly similar to pedophilia.. "Improper behavior in his home and I have a picture to prove it" ?????
I hope the kid was drinking or doing something non-sexual.. if he was then it is clearly a child-pornography/pedophilia case and police should be brought in.

Kardend said,
So when I was in a private high school like 20 years ago it was a common practice to punish students for their behavior outside school if it goes away from the school values and ideals..

It was common practice in the uk a little over 20 years ago to Cain pupils for misbehaving. When I was at school it was also (and may still be) common practice to punish students seen misbehaving while wearing school uniform. This is a practice that still carries on with work. While your wearing school/work uniform in public your representing them but when your in public in plain clothes and especially in your own home that is private and should remain outside anyone's jurisdiction unless committing criminal offences.

This school is less than an hour from my house, I know our school can take pictures of us but we don't take them home, they're only at school.

Omen1393 said,
This school is less than an hour from my house, I know our school can take pictures of us but we don't take them home, they're only at school.

That's no excuse. It's still an invasion of privacy. You shouldn't be willing to allow these people to do those type of things. Just because you might be a minor doesn't mean you don't have rights.

dogmai said,

That's no excuse. It's still an invasion of privacy. You shouldn't be willing to allow these people to do those type of things. Just because you might be a minor doesn't mean you don't have rights.

Exactly. This is really very disturbing.

That is just so wrong on so many levels.

Everyone involved should be banned from working with children forever.

Elven said,
That is just so wrong on so many levels.

Everyone involved should be banned from working with children forever.


+1

Sounds like the responsible party was a Pedo who wanted to see teenagers...um..."exploring" themselves...anyways, it's unacceptable. I'm sure there HAS to be a law against that...The other thing I want to know was this a clause in the contract for getting the laptop? Even then, What are they going to see by turning on the webcam that would be of use for enforcing the rules?

This is just plain out of bounds...:\

According to the PDF there was nothing regarding the the ability of the School (or related departments) to remotely activate and access the Web Cams in any of the documents provided to students or their families.

I am glad I am out of school! That can not be happening. if it does, I am sure they will get sued for this. And the petition will be setup quickly in order to shut it down.

Good to see a class action suit against them. Schools go to far with things, I respect them wanting to keep students safe but theres a line, and you never should cross that line.

DarkNovaGamer said,
Good to see a class action suit against them. Schools go to far with things, I respect them wanting to keep students safe but theres a line, and you never should cross that line.

Class action will only hurt the tax payers. Criminal charges are what need to be brought up.

DarkNovaGamer said,
Good to see a class action suit against them. Schools go to far with things, I respect them wanting to keep students safe but theres a line, and you never should cross that line.

No the whole district will be hurt. At this point the state government needs to step in and say no they can't sue the school(I believe you need permission) This in no way warrants a monetary reward. Criminal charges yes money no.

dogmai said,

Class action will only hurt the tax payers.

Good. The taxpayers usually ignore voting in the school board elections, now they get to pay for their inaction.

Joe USer said,

Good. The taxpayers usually ignore voting in the school board elections, now they get to pay for their inaction.

What about the taxpayers who don't ignore it?

The whole thing makes my stomach turn and makes me want to write a bunch of nasty emails to these despicable people who did this.

A law suit will just end up hurting the students and the tax payers more than the parties involved. I think that law suit should be dropped, and criminal actions are what should be taken.

Shadrack said,
The whole thing makes my stomach turn and makes me want to write a bunch of nasty emails to these despicable people who did this.

A law suit will just end up hurting the students and the tax payers more than the parties involved. I think that law suit should be dropped, and criminal actions are what should be taken.

+1, it's amazing how some people don't realize that all suing the school in their district is going to do is raise their own property taxes. Absolutely take action and remove these people from their positions and ensure something like this never happens again, but keep money out of it.

Shadrack said,
The whole thing makes my stomach turn and makes me want to write a bunch of nasty emails to these despicable people who did this.

A law suit will just end up hurting the students and the tax payers more than the parties involved. I think that law suit should be dropped, and criminal actions are what should be taken.

You make a good point. A class action suit will only hurt the students, parents and general tax payers more than the people responsible. I don't know how it works there but over here in Ontario, Canada; our schools are paid by tax dollars. If a class action suit is brought up and won, it would be the taxpayers that have to fork out the money as the school would stay open, hopefully with new people running it. Criminal charges should be brought up on the person that did the spying and maybe a large fine to make an example of this person so no one will do it again.

Unacceptable, the school has no right to govern the conduct in the home. The school is not a parent. The school is not the CIA, the FBI, or the secret service. The school isn't going to gain any respect by breaking the rules it teaches.

thealexweb said,
The police should be brought in, whoevers idea it was is a pervert.
I agree. This never should have happened and anyone with half a brain would have realized the potential danger in spying on high school students. Some of them are under 18, that would open a door for child porn.

Whoever implemented this policy, facilitated it, and used the webcams should all be fired and banned from ever working in a school again. Not including any police charges that may come as a result.

If they had photo evidence of one student, what else do they have pictures of that will land them in hot water?

zeke009 said,
I agree. This never should have happened and anyone with half a brain would have realized the potential danger in spying on high school students. Some of them are under 18, that would open a door for child porn.

Whoever implemented this policy, facilitated it, and used the webcams should all be fired and banned from ever working in a school again. Not including any police charges that may come as a result.

If they had photo evidence of one student, what else do they have pictures of that will land them in hot water?

You make a very good point. Teenagers are kind of known for going to their rooms with stuff, so who's to say what happened when they have their computers on... Child porn could definitely be a concern...

DeathLace said,
That is ridiculous... The principal should be fired, no questions asked.

+1 For sure. No questions... just straight up "You're fired!!!" He/She should be brought up on criminal charges too.

dogmai said,

+1 For sure. No questions... just straight up "You're fired!!!" He/She should be brought up on criminal charges too.

And branded a child predator as well.

DeathLace said,
That is ridiculous... The principal should be fired, no questions asked.

No he could just be following district policy to save his ass. Things like this may not be up to the schools but the district.

Now using this at the school...meh, what rights you have change when you walk through the door. Using it at home though is very wrong.

DeathLace said,
That is ridiculous... The principal should be fired, no questions asked.

Well, I think first they need to find out where this policy originated... This goes beyond just a Principal it sounds. There had to be IT, and various other faculty in line to follow through with something like this. I mean they disciplined the student without thinking anything of it. So that tells me that this wasn't just a principal deciding to check the web cams... I would like to know more on this though. I would question the school board.