In Pennsylvania, School Administrators Used Laptops To Spy On Minors

Students in Pennsylvania were thrilled to receive laptops free of charge from their school district to create a "seamless" way to collaborate on projects and access school materials. What they didn't expect was school officials activating the laptop webcams remotely.

The Courthouse News Service reports:

The families say the Lower Merion School District issued Webcam-equipped personal laptop computers to each of its approximately 1,800 high school students: in Harriton High School in Rosemont, and Lower Merion High School in Ardmore. The schools issued the computers as part of a "one-to-one" laptop computer initiative lauded by Superintendent Christopher McGinley as an effort that "enhances opportunities for ongoing collaboration, and ensures that all students have 24/7 access to school based resources and the ability to seamlessly work on projects and research at school and at home."

But the parents and students say that, without their knowledge, the access went both ways. Nowhere in any "written documentation accompanying the laptop," or in any "documentation appearing on any Web site or handed out to students or parents concerning the use of the laptop," was any reference made "to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera," the complaint states.

And how did parents find out about this two-way access? In November 2009, a Harriton High School student named Blake Robbins was informed by Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko that the school district had reason to believe he was engaged in "improper behavior" off school grounds. The evidence? A photograph from the webcam that came with the school-issued laptop.

Horrified, Robbins' parents filed a class action suit against the school district on behalf of the other families issued laptops asserting that the district was in violation of a slew of federal and state laws, as well as the fourth amendment of the Constitution.

Cory Doctrow, writing for Boing Boing, summarizes the feelings of many a technophile when he says:

If true, these allegations are about as creepy as they come. I don't know about you, but I often have the laptop in the room while I'm getting dressed, having private discussions with my family, and so on. The idea that a school district would not only spy on its students' clickstreams and emails (bad enough), but also use these machines as AV bugs is purely horrifying.

Normally, when these types of cases surface, opinions are mixed as to how much privacy one can expect from a device issued by a work or school institution. Indeed, many commenters on the Boing Boing site note, administrators monitoring student use on school computers isn't new - and that type of surveillance can help teachers in a variety of ways outside of simple safety concerns.

But does that benefit become more sinister when officials use the technology to monitor children outside of school?

Big Brother Is Here: Families Say Schools Snoop in Their Homes With District-Issued Laptops & Webcams [Courthouse News Service]
School used student laptop webcams to spy on them at school and home [Boing Boing]
How Google Saved A School [PBS]