Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pa. school district denies spying on students with MacBooks

This from Computerworld:

Claims it only remotely activated cameras
to locate lost or stolen Apple laptops

A suburban Philadelphia school district yesterday denied it spied on students by remotely activating the cameras on their school-issued MacBook laptops.

In a statement released late Thursday, Christopher McGinley, the superintendent of Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa., admitted that the MacBooks' cameras could be turned on without a user's knowledge but said that the functionality was part of a security feature.

"Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property," said McGinley. "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." When switched on, the feature was limited to taking snapshots of whoever was using the notebook and capturing the computer's current screen.

Laptop cameras have only been activated for that purpose, McGinley continued. "The District has not used the tracking feature or webcam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever," he said.

On Tuesday, a high school student and his parents sued the district, claiming that the boy's MacBook had been used to spy on him in his home. According to the lawsuit, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., said they first found out about the alleged spying last November after their son Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of "improper behavior in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

Doug Young, a spokesman for the school district, declined to answer questions about whether Blake Robbins' computer camera had been activated and, if so, under what circumstances. "I can't speak to the lawsuit," Young said.

The lawsuit speaks for itself, said Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This is utterly shocking, and a blatant violation of [the students'] constitutional rights," Bankston said Thursday, citing the Fourth Amendment after reviewing the Robbins' complaint. "The school district would have no more right to [use the laptop's webcam] than to install secret listening devices in the textbooks that they issued students." Bankston suggested that students should tape over the lens of their laptops' cameras when not in use.

McGinley confirmed that the district had disabled the camera activation feature Thursday and would not switch it back on without the written consent of students and families. The Robbins' lawsuit alleged that the district had not told students or their families of the activation feature when it handed out the MacBooks. All 2,300 students at the district's two high schools have been given notebooks.


Richard Innes said...

There is a lot more going on with this story.

This weekend the AP and the Philadelphia Enquirer carried a lot more information, including indications that both the local district attorney and the FBI are considering investigations due to possible violations of federal wire tap laws and other complex issues.

Some reports indicate that even if the software was only used for tracking stolen computers, that may have violated federal statutes.

This raises questions for us in Kentucky. There are student laptop loaner programs in some of our schools, too. And, some teachers have also been issued school-controlled laptops.

Was similar "snoopware" installed in those computers, and is there a similar problem in Kentucky?

The question involves potential privacy issues for both staff and students.

For links to some of the rapidly growing story, check out the Bluegrass Policy Blog.

Richard Day said...

Good questions...and I suspect the feds may be onto something.

As for wire taping, Kentucky is a one-party state. I don't know about Pennsylvania.

We have something at EKU that allows the IT folks to "turn a computer into a rock" if it's reported stolen. They can remotely disable it. But we don't have web-enabled cameras.

What some folks may not realize is that it is even easier to snoop using the microphone on the computer than the camera. There's no red light when the mic's on.