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

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.

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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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123 comments
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  • Wow

    Built-in cameras for government (or private) subsidized home gadgets suddenly sounds like such a "not-good" idea. Of course these built-ins have always made me a tad uneasy, especially in a high powered desktop or laptop that can be doing a lot in the background before you ever noticed a performance hit.
    oncall
    • 1984 anyone

      After I read that book, I refused to buy a laptop with a camera in it, call me paranoid, (I am i admit it), but its too easy to hack someone's laptop, especially when they're on a public network.
      KBot
      • Wonder if Government is doing the same thing

        Maybe they're able to easily gain access to
        anyone's laptop camera.
        HollywoodDog
        • I am thinking...

          Yes they could if they wanted to. But then again my laptop lives in a closed desk drawer and my iMac lives in a separate office staring at a bookshelf. And I am suddenly really glad the "on 24/7" iPad I am planning on buying does NOT come with a built-in camera at all, the wifi only model is also sounding better as well.

          I do not consider myself a tinfoil hatter but this is like OMFG.
          oncall
          • And you think..?? (or don't) ??

            And you think our government doesn't have the capability to hack wi fi or what..??
            exhitechhobo
          • Of course I don't think

            It's far too strenuous ;)
            What kind of question is that of course they can hack wifi. But of course unlike
            3g it is not always in contact with the mother ship
            oncall
          • I agree...too strenuous...

            And somehow ANY time I think about our government it MAKES MY HEAD HURT.. ;-)
            exhitechhobo
        • Geeee... SURELY our government...

          Geeee... SURELY our government...would NEVER do ANYTHING like spy on its own citizens....right..??? One doesn't have to be paranoid to envision this happening...

          More like one would have to be STUPID to think they would never DREAM of doing anything like that... :-0~
          exhitechhobo
          • re: SURELY our government...would NEVER

            That is sooo obviously sarcasm. Have you not heard of the Patriot Act? Talk like that is unpatriotic, that means you are a TERRORIST and they can legally kill you.

            Just saying is all.

            Homeland Security is watching you.
            Tsingi
      • Aldos Huxley

        1984 was written about 1948 tech.
        Altotus
        • Don't you mean George Orwell? (nt)

          lehnerus2000
          lehnerus2000
          • Orwell and Huxley

            lehnerus2000, you are correct that 1984 is by Orwell. It is quite possible that the poster to whom you responded was actually thinking of _Animal_Farm_ by Huxley and got titles confused.
            tmsassoc
          • Also by George Orwell

            I believe that you are (both) thinking of "Brave New World".

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_Farm

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World

            lehnerus2000
            lehnerus2000
          • Big Brother is probably ignoring you...

            Ah brave new world that has such people in it.
            bob.duncan
    • This is what we can expect to happen...

      ...when people accept the government's
      "freebies" and allow them into their homes.
      It's not a surprise that some meddlesome
      bureaucrat simply could not resist this kind of
      temptation. It was inevitable.

      Just remember this episode next time we talk
      about government-run ISPs, or other such
      "accessibility" initiatives. The privacy you
      save might be your own.
      JohnMcGrew
  • simple solution

    put Linux instead of windoze on the laptop and you will take control.
    Linux Geek
    • huh?

      Linux can still be modified to do the same thing...
      Stuka
      • Not really

        He brings up an interesting point for once. With linux installed you won't get any webcam functionality so they can't spy on you. Of course you won't get any other functionality out of the laptop either but at least they can't spy on you anymore because with linux on there the laptop will be completely useless.
        Loverock Davidson
        • Partially right

          You will get full functionality, but since you will have 100% control over everything the OS does you could deactivate any activity you want at will.

          Although this is only valuable for if you know what you are doing, and that you know to look for such a problem.
          T1Oracle
          • Really?

            So you think that if a school provides its students laptops their going to give them root access and allow them to install/uninstall anything they want?
            This story has absolutely nothing to do with operating systems, this could have been accomplished on Mac, Linux, Windows, ... if someone really wanted to write the software and lock down the computer to allow for this.
            RichHalvor