Lower Merion high school Webcam flap: Report says 56,000 images snapped

Lower Merion high school Webcam flap: Report says 56,000 images snapped

Summary: A school district accused of spying on students with Webcams now appears to have snapped 56,000 images, according to reports.

SHARE:
18

A school district accused of spying on students with Webcams now appears to have snapped 56,000 images, according to reports.

The Lower Merion School District raised a ruckus with a tracking feature on laptops that potentially violated family privacy. A civil suit was filed by students alleging that the district violated their privacy with “indiscriminant use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District.”

In February, Lower Merion apologized and moved to allay worries. But the allegations led to everything from an FBI investigation to new legislation. Those worries may rev up again following a Philly.com report. According to Philly.com, the flagship site of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News:

Lower Merion School District employees activated the web cameras and tracking software on laptops they gave to high school students about 80 times in the past two school years, snapping nearly 56,000 images that included photos of students, pictures inside their homes and copies of the programs or files running on their screens, district investigators have concluded.

The data was handed to the paper by a school district lawyer.

Among the key points:

  • In most cases, school district employees turned off the system after a laptop was found.
  • In at least five instances, district employees kept the Webcams on and took pictures for days.
  • Six laptops accounted for most of the images---all six were reported missing from Harriton High School, which gave all of its high school students a laptop.

Topics: Laptops, Hardware, Mobility

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

18 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • One Point of Confusion

    WHat I have not seen anywhere in the articles around this topic, if the pics were taken from laptops reported missing, why are we not seeing any indication of police involvment?

    Laptop missing, activate webcam under authorities supervision, trace and recover laptop, arrest, prosecute.
    rhonin
    • re: One Point of Confusion

      Missing <> Stolen.

      If these kids are anything like some of mine and their friends, "missing" can mean that "I forgot whose house I left it at and since I have to have it for class Monday morning, it's easier to tell the school that it's lost than it is to retrace all of my steps from the weekend."
      Joker_TX
  • Forget lawsuits and fines

    Lawsuits and fines will only punish the taxpayers who pay school taxes. This needs to boil down to jail time and jail time alone.
    ejhonda
  • RE: Lower Merion high school Webcam flap: Report says 56,000 images snapped

    Educate me. What laws were broken?
    dkchal@...
    • re: What laws were broken?

      I don't know about local laws and federal computer-related statutes but at the least this is a civil rights violation.

      The school district is a government agency, like the police, and isn't allowed to conduct searches of private homes without a warrant.

      When a government agency causes an imaging device to be placed inside a private home and then activates the device to record and collect images from inside the home, that's a warrantless search.




      :)
      none none
    • What laws were broken? Where do we start?

      dkchal I hope that you are looking to be educated rather than siding with what was done.

      You are not capturing images/video/audio on the street in a public place. You are capturing these in a home, a home that is subject to privacy laws. Police can arrest you on the street, no warrant required. However private property such as your residence or out of view in your car cannot be touched without a warrant. Wiretap is legal (however varies state to state) if one of the parties knows that this is being done. Think of a telephone call you make to someone. Its ok if the other person records the two of you. However if a third party, police included, want to listen or record then a warrant needs to be issued.

      The next part gets into a bad area. If your daughter or son is changing in the privacy of their room, and they are underage, and the webcam captures images this could be considered child pornography. The school district could be charged with possession of child pornography as the images are stored on their computers. So could anyone who viewed the files.

      Were the staff viewing these? You bet and making fun of it. From another post: "Watching the high school students at home via their computers' cameras was like "a little [Lower Merion School District] soap opera," a staffer said in an e-mail to (Carol) Cafiero obtained by Robbins' lawyer during discovery." Carol is (maybe soon to be was) an Information Systems Coordinator. There was no mention of who the other staff member was. This inplies that more than one person has been viewing the pictures.

      So let's put it another way. How would you like your daughter or son, in the privacy of their own rooms, BEING PASSED AROUND TO MORALLY CHALLENGED ADULTS and made jokes of?
      dave01234
      • No Constitutional Right to Privacy

        Enemies of former Judge Robert Bork notwithstanding, there is NO constitutionally guaranteed ?right to privacy?. If you want one, you have to pass around one more amendment to the constitution, and get it ratified.

        Is it not the cardinal rule of IT that if your employer / school / other 3rd party provides you with a computer for use while you are with the organization, then you absolutely have no expectation of privacy, especially as regards to programs, data and whatnot installed on the system.

        So if your son or daughter thinks it?s ok to undress in front of a webcam-equipped laptop that is up, running, and with the laptop pointed at her, who is the bigger idiot? The school district that maybe picked the cheapest hardware tracking system they could find, or your flirtatious teen? How about kids who are provided a very expensive tool showing a little responsibility?
        Too Old For IT
        • No Constitutional Right to Privacy ?

          I am not a constitutional lawyer (nor any type of lawyer for that matter) but... If I were to legally gain entrance into a neighbor's home (so it's not breaking & entering) and while they were in the kitchen baking cookies, I could install a wireless webcam. I could then go back to my home and legally receive the video and images? And I could do this because my neighbor does not have a constitutional right to privacy? Something is wrong here!
          KTC
        • Wrong.

          It's true that employers can monitor a laptop that they have provided for approprate use however that does not mean that they can capture audio and video indiscriminately. This means that they can be capturing things that have nothing to do with work and things that happen when the laptop is idle (employee finished the work day).

          If the police can't do this WITHOUT a warrant they why do you thing this short sighted school board CAN????

          Also I believe that the law regarding child pornography would stick like glue. Even an employer who provides employees with laptops for work couldn't get out of that.
          dave01234
        • How about actually reading the Constitution?

          Instead of relying on a so-called
          "Constitutionalist," you might actually try
          reading the fourth amendment for yourself. The
          fourth amendment states "The right of the
          people to be secure in their persons, houses,
          papers, and effects, against unreasonable
          searches and seizures, shall not be
          violated..."

          The fact the school system provided the laptop
          gives them a right to monitor the laptop and
          its usage. If the student chooses to visit
          porn or gambling sites, the school has every
          right to use any means at its disposal to
          identify and stop this activity.

          Similarly, a school would have a reason to
          activate a camera on a stolen laptop in an attempt to trace the thief. However, a school
          does not have a right to enable cameras for the
          purpose of satisfying the voyeuristic needs of
          its employees.
          Gaoyou60
          • If laws were broken to get...

            If a laptop was stolen and the camera was activated and they somehow managed to locate the house the police would still have to get a warrant to enter that house.

            Could the thief use wiretap laws to get the charges thrown out in court? Any "knowledgeable" lawyers (as opposed to speculators) on this point? Is this considered fruit of the poison tree?
            dave01234
        • No Right to Privacy

          What the school district fails to understand is that it is illegal, regardless of whether, or not, a laptop was reported stolen, to use video surveillance on a US citizen within their home without a warrant (it doesn't matter if the child and/or parents signed a consent).
          DoctorDavid823
  • RE: Lower Merion high school Webcam flap: Report says 56,000 images snapped

    One certain consequence of the publicity of this case:

    Now many parents, upon finding that their kids have brought home a school laptop, will at the very least stick a blob of poster putty on the camera lens. Or maybe "accidentally" splatter something on it. Something that can easily be fixed, to be sure.
    jgeorge12001@...
    • My first thought...

      was black electrical tape. It is opaque, thin so the laptop can close and can be easily removed and reapplied if the webcam is used.
      don3605
  • Shills working for the FBI Posting

    Shills working for the FBI for damage control as this issue relates to Google & other privacy concerns by multinational corporations, intelligense services that continue to do the same(through Digital Television, Phone Taps, Cell Phone Camera intiatiation, visual images, data & video is being used as a way of surveillancing the public for know reason but for the unique term "intelligense gathering". This information is fed to fusion centers set up all across the US.

    So ofcourse "they say no laws were broken".

    Shills live under the illusion of inclusion
    PeaceGod
    • FBI damage control

      Black helecopters much? Watching too many superspy movies can lead to paranoia.

      IIUC all the students had to sign a contract with the acceptance of the laptops. In the contract it states there is the ability to track the machines.

      The fact that the ability to track the machines is not the crux of the problem, what was done with the captured files seems to be of more concern.
      WinterHavenWalt
  • RE: Lower Merion high school Webcam flap: Report says 56,000 images snapped

    Hmm - so the school enforces the use of its own laptops, threatens expulsion to students who would like to use their own equipment, and then uses these obligatory laptops to spy on students? The school forces students into being monitored without their knowledge, and lies when students suspect this occurs? Surely this cannot be legal activity.

    This is a very disturbing image indeed - an advance on "1984" for sure. I do not find it easy to believe the claims that this is purely to avoid theft of laptops, since it appears that the staff at the school have "fun" looking at the images they are secretly collecting.

    If I were being politically correct (something I dislike), I would imply that these actions could closely match those of a group of paedophiles, but that is probably not actually the case.

    I suspect, however, that the people who set up this scheme were too insensitive or misguided to appreciate the moral and ethical situation. Perhaps they were too impressed with the technology and their "clever" use of it to realise how their actions might be seen by others.

    It would be in the interests of the students and the public generally for someone to be prosecuted for this large scale "peeping Tom" arrangement. The school administration is responsible for these acts, not the misguided IT people, and in my opinion the school administration should end up in court for it. They are clearly not suitable to be caring for potentially vulnerable youngsters.

    (Also, if there were any actual thefts, how come there is no indication of this? "Missing" to me means just that - missing or mislaid.)
    stevelong-netsolve
  • Says a lot for education

    ...that the students werent made aware of the danger of having an embedded webcam, but thats not the issue.

    For quite a while now mobile phones have had cameras, and those cameras have been pointed at all sorts of things. The mess that caused forced phone manufacturers to include a mandatory sound to be made whenever the camera takes a photo or begins recording.

    Also, most phones with a worthwhile camera have a physical shutter over it (to protect the lens as well as for guaranteed security should the camera be activated accidentally)

    Why are embedded webcams not subject to these restrictions? A simple shutter and a jumbo LED next to the camera as well as a distinct sound for stills would mitigate the entire problem.

    Its not that the cameras were accessed thats the problem, its the fact that they could be accessed and thats the responsibility of the manufacturers. Just like with mobile phones...

    Peace
    SiO2