Webcams gone wrong: School sued for remote activation

Webcams gone wrong: School sued for remote activation

Summary: Here's one from the "Seriously, you didn't think this was a bad idea?" files: the Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, has been accused of remotely activating the webcams in its students' laptops issued through their 1:1 program without the students' knowledge or consent.

TOPICS: Laptops, Privacy

Here's one from the "Seriously, you didn't think this was a bad idea?" files: the Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, has been accused of remotely activating the webcams in its students' laptops issued through their 1:1 program without the students' knowledge or consent. While the case has yet to see a courtroom, it looks to be ugly for the school district and potentially detrimental to other 1:1 programs nationwide.

According to ComputerWorld,

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.

An assistant principal at Harriton later confirmed that the district could remotely activate the Webcam in students' laptops.

Oh boy. Not surprisingly, the Robbins have launched a lawsuit that has been granted class action status, allowing other parents and students to join. What I have to wonder is whose bright idea was it to fire up the webcams in the first place? And then show photos taken using the webcams to students? Seriously? I know us school administrators do some stupid things, but this should probably win an award of some sort.

So what are the lesson learned here (whether or not the school is found in the wrong)? First of all, what students do at home is their business. It's remarkably easy to bounce their web traffic on school-assigned computers off the school content filter and that's completely appropriate. It's also completely reasonable to re-image the machines regularly to make sure that they don't contain inappropriate content or malware. Do not turn on their webcams when the computers are sitting in students' bedrooms. Duh.

Secondly, keep parents informed. If you have the ability to remotely control computers off-campus, make sure everyone is aware of it and has signed an acknowledgement. If you'll be monitoring web traffic while they're off-campus, have them sign off on that too. The remote control feature is very common in large deployments as it allows for remote maintenance, troubleshooting, and other helpdesk features. However, the manner in which it will be used needs to be clearly outlined.

Third, don't throw the baby out with the bath water. A school district (allegedly) made a very bad choice. This doesn't mean that 1:1 is fraught with privacy issues and should be abandoned. Rather, it means that people need to be upfront and intelligent about their 1:1 implementations. It also doesn't mean that schools should only deploy computers without webcams. Those same webcams can enable Skype sessions with instructors or peers and facilitate interactive learning opportunities with students around the globe.

Finally, respect your students. There is no need to go searching for their wrongdoings and there is no need to violate any reasonable expectations of privacy. There are more than enough safety nets that can be implemented on-campus to ensure that computers are well-maintained and free of questionable content that still allow kids to use computer resources somewhat naturally.

Topics: Laptops, Privacy

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • I saw this earlier

    All I can say is wow. My home is my home and what I do here is MY business. Not my school's, and not my employer's. Mine. Privacy does exist, and I expect to have it.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • I saw this in the Seattle Times

    According to the article, it's a security feature.

    "Lower Merion School District officials said the laptops 'contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops,' and that the feature was deactivated Thursday. Angry students already had put tape on their laptop cameras and microphones."


    "Virginia DiMedio, the Lower Merion district's technology director until she retired last summer, said that 'if there was a report that a computer was stolen, the next time a person opened it up, it would take their picture and give us their IP [Internet protocol] address, the location of where it was coming from.'"

    Maybe the kid had a stolen computer. Maybe he was caught in the act of attempting to defeat some restriction on the Mac. My understanding is the software sent a screen grab image as well as a camera image back to school officials.

    none none
  • Common sense

    The question I have out of this is who, specifically, was doing the snooping. In order to catch 'bad behavior' you have to be watching for a while.

    The old term was 'peeping tom'. When this comes out somebody needs to be facing criminal charges. If some principal ordered one of the techies to do the job they both need to face charges. In addition to termination.

    If it sounds like I'm going medieval on this its because personal privacy is an area where there must be zero tolerance to errors.

    The snoopers, should at the very least, should be arrested for aggravated stupidity.
  • RE: Webcams gone wrong: School sued for remote activation

    What Voyeur into Child Pornography was let loose in this school district? All it would take for someone to land in prison is one image of an under 18 in a state of undress in a cache on their hard drive! Talk about dumb ideas!
  • RE: Webcams gone wrong: School sued for remote activation

    I happen live in Lower Merion (though no high school student yet). Today we received an email message from the superintendent claiming the only use of the remote activation was in case of theft. They have now deactivated that feature of the laptops while they review procedures, but they claim innocence.
  • This is as clear as there is a blue sky above our heads

    And as clear as there is a ground beneath our feet.

    There is some 20 something year old sitting behind a monitoring station and turning on and off at will any webcam he can (of course he'll try to go after the cuties he knows are in the school). Whenever he comes across a 'good' scene, snap! a picture goes to his favorites folder.

    The principal or whover conceived 'this plan' had this exact idea on his mind when this was passed. The whole 'tracking' objective is pure baloney. There are a myriad of ways where this can be done without having to have the I-wanna-see-who-stole-it approach. And they know it.

    This is nothing but a clear violation of privacy and whoever approved to any of this should be prosecuted with seeking child porn charges.

    Set the example now.
    • Never assume malice...

      when incompetence is more likely...

      Have you really looked around the IT industry? Incompetence is much more likely to be the cause here than malice.