Lower Merion laptop flap: District deactivates tracking feature

Lower Merion laptop flap: District deactivates tracking feature

Summary: The Lower Merion School District said it has deactivated a tracking feature on student laptops that allowed officials to potentially violate family privacy. In an FAQ, the district also denied it was spying on students as alleged in a lawsuit.

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The Lower Merion School District said it has deactivated a tracking feature on student laptops that allowed officials to potentially violate family privacy. In an FAQ, the district also denied it was spying on students as alleged in a lawsuit.

On Thursday, news over a student lawsuit against the Pennsylvania school district raged (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.

Students allege that educators 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 an FAQ document, Dr. Christopher McGinley, Superintendent of the Lower Merion School District, tried to clear the air. The key points include:

  • The district has disabled the tracking system and won't reactivate it without permission;
  • The tracking feature was included on the roughly 1,800 Apple PCs provided to high school students.
  • And the tracking feature "has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."

Topics: Laptops, Hardware, Mobility

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24 comments
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  • Bull

    It hasn't been spying on them? Then where did the photo come from? Bull.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Totally Agree!

      Build it and the perverts will watch! This was like installing a peephole into every students bedroom! Hope they kept good logs on this Pedo bait!
      leopards
    • re; Bull

      [i]It hasn't been spying on them? Then where did the photo come from? [/i]

      Don't jump to conclusions. All we know is that a school administrator confronted a kid with a still image depicting "inappropriate behavior." We don't know what that behavior was, and if the school FAQ is truthful - "This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever." - then it is looking like the kid may have been using a computer that was reported missing.

      The lawsuit completely manufactures lurid images of students and parents "in states of dress and undress." There's no evidence that happened at all.

      Lets wait for the whole story to come out.

      Now, the school erred in not disclosing to parents and students that it can remotely control the webcam. Let's hope no one makes that mistake again.
      none none
      • You are absoluetly correct. This morning on the Morniong Show,

        talking to one of the parents, who made the statement that "the use of the camera to take a photo of a lost or stolen laptop would not be of any use".

        So, taking a snapshot of the person using a stolen device is useless? Then why do so many stores have security cameras installed? Because they are useless, but the establishment just wishes to waste money needlessly?

        No, it sounds as though the school messed up by not informing the parents of the feature, give them the choice of using the laptop or not, but beyond that, as a security feature it is either that or nothing. Maybe add a Lojack?

        Would the parents be so upset if they instead said "you lose it, you pay for it?"

        My guess would be they would welcome the camera at that point.
        GuidingLight
        • Security cameras operate.....

          .... where there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy. Lojack would serve its intended purpose and no more. Somebody in the District clearly hadn't thought this through.
          Lester Young
      • A reasoned position but not the only error....

        Just the idea that the district would allow it's officials to make visual images of "whatever was in front of the web cam" is an invintation to disaster. It's pretty obvious from the "sexting" issue that teenagers are less than discreet with some of the images they create. If one of those images got onto a school server and was then downloaded by some pervs then the feds are going to be all over the school district.

        The smart move would have been to have disabled the web cams unless some legal eagle had an airtight waiver that each kid and their parents had to sign that explained the software and that the district was not responsible for the kids misuse of it. Any ability for the school staff to access the web cam remotely without permission of the parent / guardian should have been disabled.

        The school district is playing with fire. I question the judgement of whomever allowed this app to be loaded on the system.
        ca1ic0cat
    • not that easy

      I'm pretty sure they couldn't turn the camera on without the operator knowing it. Usually a video box will pop up or the user would lose control of machine. It was probably the boy chating inapproatily with some one on something like chatroulette or something. If that was the case I believe the owner (school) has a right to protect it assests by doing screen shots. either way the boy would know the camera was on. If it was that easy to remote into someones computer without the person's knowledge watch out cause every hacker with a voyer fetish is watching you!!!!!
      xirisx
  • RE: Lower Merion laptop flap: District deactivates tracking feature

    severe constitutional violations, someone should even spend some time in jail for this, unbelievable
    muchlife
  • ,,, and educators are fighting ACCOUNTABILITY tooth and nail?

    OUR children are too vulnerable and valuable to tolerate this!
    kd5auq
  • RE: Lower Merion laptop flap: District deactivates tracking feature

    I understand their rationale with the fact that the devices are property of District rented out to students, but this is just flat out creepy. I foresee a huge settlement coming in 3...2...1...
    thehype
  • I wonder what the real events were...

    Well the official story is the feature was only used to track lost or stolen computers.

    Some of the posters claim pedophilia took place.

    Is there some real proof of what really went on that is available to the public?

    Any arrests of teachers or faculty with pornographic pictures of their students taken from the webcam?

    Now as to the legality of the tracking software being present at all, did the school district know about the feature and willfully hide it from the students and parents? Was it just a feature that Apple (the article mentioned the computers were Macs) puts in all of their computers no matter what and the school district just overlooked the implications completely?

    Was it an honest mistake on the part of the school district?

    I am all for "saving the children" but what are we saving them from in this instance?
    mr1972
    • Honest mistake? LOL

      [i]Well the official story is the feature was only used to track lost or stolen computers.[/i]

      I am sure the lawyers told them to say that. However the student involved was not accused of stealing the computer nor did he report his lost, so why was his webcam activated?

      [i]Some of the posters claim pedophilia took place.[/i]

      Let's look at what we know so far. The student's webcam was activated without his (or his parent's) knowledge while the computer was in use in his bedroom. The probability that it was the only webcam on and it just happen to catch "inappropriate behavior" at that moment is extremely unlikely. It is more likely that multiple cameras were activated over a period of time in personal and private spaces and odds are that images of juveniles in various stages of undress were recorded or viewed.

      I do not know if this software comes standard on Macbooks, but I know it has been used in the past to recover stolen laptops ... or at least get a picture of someone using them after the theft occurred. Personally, I think ONLY authorized law enforcement should have the ability to do this WITH the owner's permission (and parent, if the owner is under 18).

      It's obvious that the school district knew about the feature since they used it. And they never disclosed it to the students or parents that they could or would use it without prior notice, or that it was even installed on the laptop. So, no it wasn't even close to an honest mistake.

      At the moment the student became aware his privacy had been violated in this manner, the school's servers should have been seized and examined by authorized law inforcement for other evidence of violations.
      Lunatic59
      • Why did they show the picture to the student?

        Was that question ever answered?
        John Zern
        • To convince him?

          According to the initial report, the vice principal showed it to him. Most likely to convince the student that they had proof of his behavior, whatever that was.

          If i ever see "vice principal" on a resum?, I'm filing it circularly.
          Lunatic59
    • It sounds to me.....

      ...like some Larry Lightbulb in the District thought he had a cheap security fix without thinking it through. Anybody should realize that lots of kids + image capture = inappropriate, and something the District should stay far, far away from.
      Lester Young
  • Larry didn't do his homework.

    One of the students parents reported teh following,

    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
    ICUR12
    • Larry?

      Do you have a political agenda thats reflected in your work?
      ICUR12
  • So,the laptop of the teen was stolen?

    The damage is done,stop the lying and fess up to your crime. Its going to take millions of dollars to settle this lawsuit which only means higher taxes for the township and county and state.
    I say fire all who were involved and that be the end of it.
    Oh and another thing, this is why there should never be closed door meeting of public officials
    Stan57
    • No, assistant principal of school contacted family of student

      "the parents of student Blake Robbins were told by an official of Harriton High School last November that their son had been involved in "improper behavior in his home."

      According to the Robbins family, an assistant principal at Harriton High, Lindy Matsko, confirmed that the school district "in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student's personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose, and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the Webcam."
      ThePrairiePrankster
  • RE: Lower Merion laptop flap: District deactivates tracking feature

    Larry D.- Don't you think that your headline is rather disingenuous? "Deactivates tracking feature" implies that the laptop contains a GPS device; I think [b]"District deactivates remotely activated spycam"[/b] might be closer to the mark in this case.
    justanitguy