When webcams go bad: Students sue school officials for remote spying

Summary:School administrators in Pennsylvania are accused of remotely activating the webcams on school-issued laptops for the sake of spying on students and their families at home.

If your laptop computer's webcam could talk about what it sees, what would it say?

Students of a Pennsylvania school district are hauling educators to court over allegations that administrators remotely activated the webcams on school-issued laptops and used that remote access to spy on students and their family members. (Techmeme)

The civil suit (PDF) was filed last week against the Lower Merion School District in Ardmore, PA, its board of directors and the Superintendent. It alleges violations of the electronic Communications Privacy Act, The Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act and Pennsylvania Common Law. In part, the suit reads:

Unbeknownst to Plaintiffs and the members of the Class, and without their authorization, Defendants have been spying on the activities of Plaintiffs and Class members by Defendants' indiscriminant use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District, This continuing surveillance of Plaintiffs' and the Class members' home use of the laptop issued by the School District, including the indiscriminant remote activation of the webcams incorporated into each laptop, was accomplished without the knowledge or consent of the Plaintiffs or the members of the class.

The suit notes that there are about 1,800 students in the district's two high schools and that students were each assigned a laptop computer that was purchased, in part, through state and federal grants secured over the past few years. The suit also notes that all of the written documentation that accompanied the laptop made no reference to the district's ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam.

The issue came to light in November when an assistant principal informed a student about improper behavior in his home and produced a photograph captured from the laptop's webcam as proof. The suit did not specify the type of activity the student was engaged in.

Because the webcam would capture images of anything in its range, including the actions of other household members and their guests, the plaintiffs in the case extend to family members, as well as the students themselves.

Topics: Laptops, Hardware, Mobility

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