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School district remotely activated webcams of school laptops in student's homes

The use of technology in classrooms around the country is a great thing. Students often find learning much easier and more enjoyable when computers are integrated into the classroom curriculum. Sometimes that same technology can also have serious consequences for students and school districts.

The FBI has officially announced that it is probing a case in which a Pennsylvania school district allegedly activated webcams of school provided laptops that were in use in student's homes without prior consent or warning. The FBI is investigating to determine if the school broke federal wiretap or computer intrusion laws according to an official close to the case.

The FBI became involved in the case when a student and his family filed suit against the Lower Merion school district after the student was allegedly told by school vice principal Lindy Matsko that he was "engaged in improper behavior in his home" with Matsko citing evidence of a photo "embedded" in the student's laptop.

They’re trying to allege that when Blake was holding two Mike & Ikes in his hand, which he apparently loves and eats religiously, that those were pills, and somehow he’s involved in selling drugs,” said the family's attorney, Mark Haltzman.

The district issued Apple laptops to all 2,300 students at two high schools within the district. School officials maintain that the remote activation of webcams is a security feature and is only used to find lost or stolen laptops. According to the district, webcams have been activated remotely 42 times over the last 14 months – 28 laptops have been recovered using the system.

The students reportedly signed documents at school to receive the laptops stating that the webcams could be remotely activated, but the families of the students were not notified. Since the suit was filed, the district reports that it has discontinued the practice of activating webcams.

District spokesman Doug Young, "It's clear what was in place [to notify parents] was insufficient, and that's unacceptable."

Ari Schwartz, vice president at the Center for Democracy and Technology, wondered, "What about the (potential) abuse of power from higher ups, trying to find out more information about the head of the PTA? If you don't think about the privacy and security consequences of using this kind of technology, you run into problems."

Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania hit the nail on the head when he said, "This is an age where kids explore their sexuality, so there's a lot of that going on in the [kid's] room. This is fodder for child porn."

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RE: Make an example of Lower Merion BOE!
By CZroe on 2/23/2010 7:58:20 AM , Rating: 2
Wow. I mostly agree with you until you got to this part...
"There are certainly more less intrusive ways to ensure the laptops are returned. How about simply charging the parents and/or student for the cost of the laptop plus administrative fees, as well as withholding the students diploma if the laptop is not returned."
And, no, it's not the lack of a question mark that disturbs me. Did you even consider for a moment that we aren't talking about the student "stealing" his or her own notebook computer? They *report* it stolen. Laptops get stolen all the time and you are giving them a liabilty, not a welcome tool, if you hold the student accountable. Just like they can't legally give consent, they shouldn't be held accountable for property that is likely to get stolen. I was raised on welfare. They only way I got a computer was when my mother was in an accident and they took three years to give us the money for another car (the church finally bought us one after two years without transportation). We used it on a 16MB 133Mhz "IBM P150" (Cyrix) Acer Aspire w/ a 1.1GB HDD. Could you imagine such a family being robbed or burglarized and *then* able to cough up over $2K? Think again.

By chunkymonster on 2/23/2010 11:37:14 AM , Rating: 2
I believe you missed my point, which was that there are less intrusive ways for the Lower Merion BOE to ensure the laptops are kept safe and returned to the school. Just as the suggestion of withholding the students diploma was one idea for ensuring the laptop was returned so was the suggestions of making the students/parents liable for the cost. Also, as the previous poster noted, the school could have implemented a LoJack type solution.

If the student and/or family was burglarized, the laptop stolen, and the incident was reported to the School Administration as well as the local police, then I would expect the School to not hold the student or parents responsible for the laptop.

I also was raised on welfare and I did not own a computer until I was old enough to get a job and buy one for myself. And even then, I could not afford to buy a pre-built Gateway or Dell, I taught myself how to build my own and bought the computer one part at a time. Being raised on welfare is no excuse for not being responsible and accountable.

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