Outrage of the Week: School Gives Kids Laptops Then Uses them To Spy!

Readers — This is just incredible! A school in suburban Philadelphia issued its kids laptops without mentioning one little detail. According to a report in Courthouse News (which quotes from a federal class action suit):

[There was no] reference made “to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera.

The complaint states: “On November 11, 2009, plaintiffs were for the first time informed of the above-mentioned capability [spying] and practice by the school district when Lindy Matsko (‘Matsko’), an assistant principal at Harriton High School, informed minor plaintiff that the school district was of the belief that minor plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the school district.

I guess that school will finally be able to see who is doing their homework. And what they’re wearing. (Or not.)  I think this is going to be a big case. — Lenore

111 Responses

  1. How did anyone think this was a good idea? Basically, they sent home laptops that could monitor within the privacy of the home??? And never alerted parents to the fact? Outrageous!

    If I had been one of those parents, I would have been livid.

  2. *jawdrop*

    This might be the most outrageous outrage you’ve posted so far. This is way, waaay worse than the crap schools have been trying to pull with using sites like Facebook against kids. Seriously, even if they had informed the kids of that, is doing that even legal??

  3. If THIS does not indicate the overreaching invasion of privacy our government has started to enact, I do not know what does. As a certified IT expert, I can tell you that any such solution implemented by any organization exposes that organization to potential liabilities far greater than any benefit percieved to come from the ‘solution.’

    A year ago I was asked to implement a similar solution for a private company who wanted to monitor their work-at-home employees. Thankfully this company decided NOT do engage in such an Orwellian scheme when we conducted an experiment which showed (a) random ‘image collection’ to verify user activity could collect scenes of a ‘personal nature,’ and (b) the liability created for the company was too great if an employee with monitoring access were to abuse his access, raising the spector of a lawsuit against the company.

    The best way to determine the performance of a person using a technology is still the output they deliver as scheduled at the time the workload is assigned. This is true of school work and one’s employment. “Did he deliver?” is the only question anyone should ever ask.

  4. If I had been one of those parents, I would have been livid.

    Livid, nothing.

    Had that been one of my kids with a bugged laptop, the principal would have found the laptop crammed sideways in a very, very uncomfortable place.

  5. I’m an ashamed alum of this school. Glad I got out before anything like this happened!

    This might be an upside — families in this district tend to be wealthy enough that they could easily take the school/district to court over the issue, which it seems like they’re doing, and I know parents have done before. The district wouldn’t have the money to deal with this in court and would probably (hopefully!) have to back down.

  6. We have gone from fearing the security of the internet to anything/everything goes, your nobody unless everything about you is transparent. There is little to no digital hygiene that is of any concern with many of the nets younger users. This is all they have known since High School, so it must be safe, secure, and no problem. I don’t know where this all nets out for privacy and society. Caution is still necessary, storage is unlimited and cheap and everything is connected.

  7. O…M…G…

  8. That is outrageous.

    I can’t even fathom what good they thought spying on the kids could really do. I mean – so what if you caught them doing something they ideally wouldn’t in their own home? Surely, as a school district you’d want the parents to be responsible for that, not the school. When schools take actions like this that (as well as simply being unbelievable offensive) seem to increase the scope of things they want to be held liable for I despair. It puts the lie to the idea (that I generally hold) that fear of liability is the big motivator for inane school policies.

  9. Livid, nothing.

    Had that been one of my kids with a bugged laptop, the principal would have found the laptop crammed sideways in a very, very uncomfortable place.

    QFT!

    Let them try it with me or any future kids of mine and there will be Hell to pay!

  10. I hate to say it, but to use people’s paranoid arguments against themselves..

    If they photograph a kid in the nude, in the privacy of their own room, who goes to jail?

    Won’t the school district think of the children? ;)

  11. If they were so worried about improper use of the webcams, then why not just disable the webcam before the laptops were issued to students? And if it was their intent to actually SPY rather than monitor webcam use…well, that seems like it should land a few people in jail.

  12. Hate to double post..

    But does anyone in school administration actually read books? This IS the telescreens from 1984. Just pure definition.. the people were afraid to even speak up against big brother in their own homes, because they COULD be watching with their telescreens..

    Every week, I’m convinced more and more that George Orwell was a psychic, just horrible at picking dates…

  13. okaasan- It wouldn’t make any sense to use this to monitor the use of the webcam. Turning the webcam on and looking through it does not tell anyone whether the kid is using the webcam or how they’re using it. Setting it up this way pretty much can’t be anything EXCEPT spying.

  14. If the laptop is in a kid’s room, it may catch them in an indecent state. Having access to that image is enough to put the school board members and those monitoring the computers on the offender registry.

  15. Bingo, and as much as I hate the offender registry I think they would totally deserve to be there for this. Even the peons monitoring things, because when they’re told what their job is they should have the sense to say to their superior that they won’t do shit like that because it will land them on the registry.

  16. Man, I hope the school officials are put on the sex offenders registry. What a horrid offense.

  17. Well, if there’s a silver lining, this puts everyone on notice that webcams on school issued computers should be disabled! But I am not suggesting that makes it any less outrageous.

  18. I think I would have dropped dead if that happened to me or my kid.

    This is so obviously illegal, whoever came up with the idea should be fired for incompetence – a 6th grader should have a better understanding of the US Constitution than that.

    Can’t let kids say “God” in school because that would be establishing a government-run religion – but the government (school) can put a camera in every child’s bedroom. These are our educators, and we wonder what’s wrong with our education system?

  19. There is really no surprise here. As more and more parents expect the schools to raise their kids, the schools are going to do more and more to do that. I know that if a school issued hardware home with my kid, I’d be digging into the device to figure out what sort of monitoring capabilities the device had before I let them use it at all.

  20. I think I might have shown the principal a thing or two – preferably on webcam.

  21. Sounds like Ms. Matsko and the rest of those administrators need to find new careers. I wouldn’t trust any of those people around my child. This is one of the most perverse things I’ve ever heard.

  22. This is disgusting and horrifying. I can understand a school issuing computers and then disciplining students for taking inappropriate pictures of themselves and personally saving them on the computer (as it is school property, just like a textbook, and the same rules should apply). However, the fact that they can TURN ON the webcam and take pictures of whatever is in front of the laptop at the time? Terrifying and totally wrong. I really hope this school gets their asses sued big time. No one should have the capability of doing that, government, or schools, or anyone. Outrage doesn’t even begin to describe what I feel right now.

  23. “As a certified IT expert, I can tell you that any such solution implemented by any organization exposes that organization to potential liabilities far greater than any benefit percieved to come from the ’solution.’”

    Then, as a “certified IT expert” you also are aware that the embedded webcams have also been instrumental in catching a number of people who stole laptops from schools/students.

    Do any of you people even know school teachers or administrators? First off, most of them couldn’t figure out the technology to activate the remote monitoring. Second, they have better things to do than watch your precious children smell their own farts.

    This isn’t some Orwellian attempt to invade your children’s privacy. You’re giving them waaaaaaay too much credit. Read the article quote again:

    “a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the school district.”

    If the kid was taking pictures of their privates with their webcam and sending them to the sex offender down the street, would you want the school to stay quiet?

  24. I am very curious as to what the “improper behaviour” was….

  25. @RonB
    If the ability to remotely enable the webcam was legitimately needed to aid recovering stolen laptops, then A) the fact that the school has the ability to do so should be disclosed. B) Why was a machine being monitored that has NOT been stolen?

    We don’t know that the student in this case was sending inappropriate pictures to someone else. “Inappropriate behaviour” could include quite a lot of things. There have been cases where a photo of a student drinking from a red plastic cup at a at party was considered evidence of underage drinking and used to take disciplinary action against a student.

    The responsibility to monitor a student’s internet use at home lies with his parents, not the staff of the school he attends.

  26. The problem here is that they didn’t tell the students and parents that they could/would do this. If they had, then the parents and students could decide for themselves whether they wanted to take the risk that the technology could be abused. No computer is worth this potential level of invasion of privacy.

  27. This makes me so, so furious. I hate frivolous lawsuits but I don’t consider this to be one by any means. It’s wrong, and the people who came up with the idea and executed it should be punished.

    I completely agree that they should be on the offender registry, of which I am not usually a huge fan. But spying on kids in their own home? Not just wrong, but seriously creepy.

  28. The sad thing is that I’m no longer surprised by stories showing that educators and school officials have no idea of the laws of their own nation, state, city, county or decency.

  29. “There is really no surprise here. As more and more parents expect the schools to raise their kids, the schools are going to do more and more to do that.”

    How did you came up with that, Jeff? If parents expect schools to raise their kids, they should either refuse it, because it’s not their job, or just do it. Spying on kids isn’t a valid option regardless of which approach you take.

  30. Did they not run this idea by a lawyer first? They have opened themselves up to a huge lawsuit. Because I cannot imagine a parent of this district not suing them for invasion of privacy. Not to mention, as someone else said, some adult might end up watching some “child pornography” via this little device.

  31. Here is another outrage Girl arrested for doodling:

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/02/18/new.york.doodle.arrest/index.html?hpt=C1

  32. Wow. First, I do not believe schools should be issung laptops to begin with. What’s wrong with (1) good old fashioned hand written assignments? and (2) having a computer lab in the school for the students to use for assignments and research?

    Also, if I had a kid there, I would never trust that school again and would pull him out immediately.

  33. Improper behavior at home was the school’s business…. why? Was the kid not doing his homework or something?

    I get RonB’s point about maybe discovering thieves, but like Maggie I don’t see where it could possibly be reasonable to keep that purpose a secret. And I certainly don’t want it to be so easy for anyone to turn a webcam on anywhere in my house.

  34. That is horrifying.

  35. There are other methods to trace stolen laptops. My daughter’s college issues laptops and has the tracing technology embedded, but it HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH being able to turn on a webcam from a central location and watch the user. If that’s the rationale, it’s stupid, as others have said — didn’t they even think to ask ANYBODY if this was an appropriate, effective, and legal solution? And it’s definitely not the best way even to achieve that goal. Add into it the fact that a public school is a government entity, and this is just bad, bad, bad all the way around.

    Airborne vet has a good point. Why are high schools issuing laptops anyway? I’m familiar enough with Lower Merion to know they ABSOLUTELY have the resources to provide adequate in-school computer labs for kids who might not have computer access at home. And that’s the only reason a kid “needs” a computer — they don’t need (and aren’t significantly benefited by) laptops for note-taking in class at the high school level.

  36. Reading the article, seeing the list of laws the plaintiffs are claiming the defendants violated, I’m thinking that if there’s any substance to it at all (and there certainly seems to be, beyond dispute) they shouldn’t just be sued, they should be charged with violating wiretapping laws. That is a serious crime, not just a tort. Maybe because of the tendency of the laws to lag on technology this wouldn’t precisely fit, though.

  37. Read the article again. No where does it state that any representative of the school EVER used the technology to take a picture.

    “cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the school district.”

    All this means is that someone from the school saw a picture, taken by the laptop webcam, of the student “engaged in improper behavior in his home”. Maybe the student took a picture of himself touching himself, or smoking pot, or molesting his sister, and posted it, emailed it, put it on YouTube. Again, there is no establishment of fact that anyone from the school ever did anything wrong; no evidence that someone from the school took the incriminating photo.

    As for whether the parents were notified, I’ll bet there’s enough fine print to cover the school district, or they’ll settle for a cozy sum. And they greedy trial lawyers will get their 33% while the school has to cancel their arts program.

  38. Also, AirborneVet, welcome to the 21st century! In addition to use those new-fangled computers, they have also ditched slide-rules in math class.

    Pentamom, webcams in laptops are much more common and cost-effective to use in laptops than tracking chips. Of course, then people will whine about the tracking chips allowing the teachers to follow them around! Boogedy boo!

  39. O.

    M.

    G.

  40. Well……except that a webcam tells you actually NOTHING about where the stolen laptop is, or who stole it, unless you’ve managed to find some really common and cost-effective facial recognition software somewhere. So actually, it doesn’t WORK for the purpose you’re suggesting it’s more cost-effective for! How cost-effective is that, then? And besides, I wasn’t implying that tracking chips were cheaper, I was implying that there were GOOD ways to track stolen computers, so that you would have no reason to resort to this horrible way. Something that’s a really lousy way to do something does not become a good way just because the good way is more expensive.

    You realize that tracking chips don’t let anyone know where the computer is unless they’re activated by the security company, and they don’t tell you what’s being done by the person using the computer, right? So actually they’re not subject to this kind of invasion of privacy because that’s not how they work?

    What’s with the snarky reply to Airborne? Do you have some data to back up the idea that laptops for high school students are both necessary and useful in order to keep up with the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century?

    But I guess if someone’s reaction to this massive infraction on public privacy is “boogedy-boo,” facts don’t matter a lot.

  41. The Fourth Amendment is apoplectic at this!

  42. @ Ron B. If you read the sentence as written gramatically, it is saying that the Webcam is embedded in the student’s laptop, not that the picture was embedded in the laptop. So, in other words, the Assistant Principle was admitting that they activated the Webcam that is embedded in the laptop and took a picture of the student that showed “improper behavior.” Behavior at home is the responsiblity of parents, not the school administrators.

    I don’t care if the Webcams are useful for tracking down laptop thieves – they need to either inform parents and give them the option to opt out or not issue laptops to students.

    How is this any different from a peeping tom looking into these people’s houses? It’s not. I would not agree to a piece of technology in my home that lets strangers, because that’s what these people are, look into my house whenever they want. Has anyone looked to see if any of those Webcams have been activated to watch any of the girls change clothes?

  43. “Again, there is no establishment of fact that anyone from the school ever did anything wrong; no evidence that someone from the school took the incriminating photo.”

    Yes, and having read the article, it seems that one of the central concerns is not what was done already, but that the technology that would enable someone to switch on the webcam to observe a person in the room with the computer is itself problematic. Setting up a wiretap is illegal even if you don’t turn it on and use it. It’s the same principle. So that’s the evidence that someone “did something wrong.”

  44. Quote: “an assistant principal at Harriton High School, informed minor plaintiff that the school district was of the belief that minor plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home..”

    Scuzi? Where was the laptop at the time? The kid’s bedroom? Did some kid try to relieve some, uh, pressure and get caught on Candid Camera? If he/she is under 18, that’s kiddie porn.

  45. “So, in other words, the Assistant Principle was admitting that they activated the Webcam that is embedded in the laptop and took a picture of the student”

    It doesn’t say that! “cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the school district.” Yes, the webcam is embedded in the laptop. Said webcam took the picture in question. There’s no clear indication whether the school took the picture, or if the kid took it. But people jump on the school because certainly it couldn’t be a case of Little Johnny taking a picture of his privates and emailing to every girl in his class, right?

    “But I guess if someone’s reaction to this massive infraction on public privacy is “boogedy-boo,” facts don’t matter a lot.” This isn’t a massive infraction of public privacy. This is an isolated allegation of wrongdoing that has such a flimsy basis, it’s being brought in civil court instead of criminal. The burdon of proof is significantly lower in civil court. If there was a crime, why hasn’t the local DA gotten involved?

    My snark is directed at the notion that this is evidence of some Orwellian plot by schools to spy on your kids. I never understand how people can simultaneously assert that an institution is both incompetent AND capable of pulling off a huge conspiracy.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the school had NO idea that this functionality existed when they issued the laptops. And once they’re out there, the damage is done. Should they have sent a letter? Sure. Add it to the list of 4926 other things a school system doesn’t have the time or resources to do in any given day. Then again, maybe they did inform the parents. Maybe it was a few years ago, and the parents forgot, lost the letter, are looking for a payday, are covering their own hineys… Who knows. The article is devoid of any facts about the school’s issuance policies and procedures, there has been no discovery of evidence (again, because it’s a civil case, the bar is lower), no direct assertion of who took the photo, what they saw, what the picture contained, etc. And yet, with such little information, you’ve already indicted the school administration as Big Brotherly Peeping Toms.

  46. Book recommendation:

    _Little Brother_, by Cory Doctorow.

    They’re just getting started.

  47. @RonB: I think you’re way off-base here. If you look at the text of the actual class action complaint filed in U.S District Court in PA (http://craphound.com/robbins17.pdf), you’ll see that:

    1. The plaintiffs examined ALL accompanying documentation that came with the laptop (p. 6, item 22) and found no reference to the fact that the school district could remotely activate the embedded webcam, and

    2. The school district later admitted that it had the ability to remotely activate the webcams and that it was, in fact, doing so “without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.” (p. 7, items 24-26)

    The remainder of the filing (pp. 7-16, items 27-77) details each of the seven counts against the plaintiffs, including which laws were broken and what the possible punishments are for breaking those laws.

    This isn’t a little thing — this goes right to the heart of what this country is supposed to stand for. In fact, one could reasonably argue that the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated in this case.

    The defendants need to go down and they need to go down hard.

  48. So if the school has a nude photo of the kid are they going to be charged with child porn?

  49. Thanks for the link, Jeff. The one Lenore provided is pretty poor, since there’s obviously plenty of facts available that never made it into Courthouse News’s article. But shoddy journalism isn’t the topic of conversation today…

    But again, I don’t see where the school actively took action with this remote view/photo capability. Going back to the Peeping Tom analogy, it’s not a crime if someone walks by your open window and KNOWS they can look in to see you undressing. It’s the ACT that is criminal, not the capacity, ability, or desire to act.

    “this goes right to the heart of what this country is supposed to stand for. In fact, one could reasonably argue that the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated in this case.”

    Sure, and one could reasonably argue that they were not. That’s the beauty of the Constitution, and this may end up in the high court before it’s settled.

  50. Excuse me, Big Brother, while I get dressed instead of using my computer while wearing only underwear.
    If tracking the location of a computer is important, it would seem that a GPS such as built into many or most cell phones would be more effective than invasive webcams.

  51. Let’s file class action lawsuits against OnStar and Motorola next. And the internet – and Al Gore for inventing it.

    This is yet another example of where duct tape would have been handy – a small square of tape over the webcam would eliminate this massive invasion of the government into our lives.

  52. The think that worries me more than being spying and the “guilty until proven innocent” attitude is the (presumably) unintentional child porn they could get with this thing. What if they happen to start spying while a student is changing their clothes or just got out of the shower? Nobody deserves an unknown intrusion into the place that they think is safest to be naked, and especially not minors!

  53. I don’t even know what to say to that! That is outrageous. The other part of this technology I find outrageous is that parents are using similar tools to spy on their own kids. This is so scary to me and I hope this case is on every news station out there. I also hope that people are as outraged as all your readers.

    Frightening to say the least.

  54. Soooo 1984.

  55. Ron, when you have OnStar, etc, you know what you’re getting into. You sign up for the service. Nobody signed up for the kids being spied on by their school. They did not know it could happen.

  56. Ars Technica carried this story as well and makes the point that the picture could have been taken by the student and synched with the school’s servers.

    The lawsuit only carries the claim, not necessarily the truth. Let’s not damn the innocent.

  57. Holy sheep! Who the heck approved this? Clearly they didn’t bother running it past a lawyer first.

    How could anyone with more than two functional brain cells think this was any kind of a good idea?? I hope they get their asses handed to them in court.

    Angie

  58. @Ron B.: First of all, why do you think the plaintiff would have even thought to put duct tape over the camera? He wouldn’t think to do this because no one told him or his family that the camera may or may not be activated remotely and, since he has a reasonable expectation of privacy (there’s those damn laws again), he wouldn’t even think to cover the camera. Furthermore, we shouldn’t have to resort to this. We should reasonably expect that the government will stay out of our private business. Otherwise, we’re no better than the oppressive governments we’re so quick to condemn.

    “But again, I don’t see where the school actively took action with this remote view/photo capability.”

    How did you miss this? It’s right there in the lawsuit:

    22. An examination of all of the written documentation accompanying the laptop, as well as any documentation appearing on any website or handed out to students or parents concerning the use of the laptop, reveals that no reference is made to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera at the time of the activation.

    23. On November 11, 2009, Plaintiffs were for the first time informed of the above-mentioned capability and practice by the School District when Lindy Matsko (“Matsko), an Assistant Principal at Harriton High School, informed minor Plaintiff that the School District was of the belief that minor Plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop by the School District.

    24. Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through Ms. Matsko, that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students’ 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, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.

    So, to recap:

    1. Neither the parents nor the student knew that the camera could be activated remotely by the school district and that images from that camera could be intercepted and stored by the school district.

    2. The school district did not receive these images “out of the blue.” In other words, someone from the school district had to consciously activate the camera and capture the images, and these captured images were only going to the school district. They weren’t being streamed for anyone to see.

    3. The school district subsequently admitted that they can activate and capture remote images from the webcams whenever they felt like it and, in at least one case, they did so.

  59. Outrageous! This is exactly why I never trusted with public computers. They are always rigged to spy on you. :(

  60. GASP! Why isn’t anyone freaking out about pedophilia??

    Spying on children unbeknownst to them in their homes??

    That is the definition of creep!!!

  61. Now I’d have thought that there would be clear grounds under just about any jurisdiction to mount a multi charge criminal case, on at least three counts. Predatory Paedophilia, apprehended psycological violence and blackmail being the immediate and most obvious.
    Forget the civil suits. This is clearly a Police Criminal matter and should be pursued as such, by the Police. The perpetrators should not be spared for one moment under any misguided conception that it was done in the victim’s interests. The collusion of any P&C body (school council or what ever may be specific in this case) and the potential of what would probably amount to conspiracy to commit such offences by segments of the parent community or school controlling body must also be considered.

  62. Woah, can you say 1984?! And, can you say lawsuit?! I don’t care how much in debt I would be, if this happened in my district, I would be suing the district, the principal, the superintendent, the school board individuals, and any other person who had any hand in these computers going into the hands of children (or anyone, for that matter) with this kind of crap in place.

  63. Just when I have been complaining about the lack of high school courses regarding civics and how our govt. functions (Constitution, Bill of Rights, Amendments, etc.) and now this. Now I don’t want educators teaching any of these subjects as they clearly do not understand the subject matter. How could anyone in their right mind be part of this!? I hope this district gets stomped in court. I wish the court could order the brain dead administrator who thought up this idea to use the webcam notebook to give him/herself a colonoscopy with it.

  64. They really should get the ACLU involved in this one. I can remember when I was in high school, and there was a controversy over whether or not school administrators could search student property without reason. I was always curious about why unlawful search and seizure doesn’t seem to apply to minors…

  65. I think when we have a school district that neglects to inform parents they have the potential to spy, we have a major infraction of justice and freedom.

    While it really does make me wish the sex offender registry would be used against the school district, by wishing that I’m only wishing it to be just as misused as it already is. The school district needs to be punished somehow – using the laws of this country to do it – but in a reasonable manner. It really is sad that suing the school district is only causing trouble for the people that pay taxes to it… this is really a sad, sorry, stupid situation.

  66. A note to Jeff and Ron B- An acquantaince of mine lives near this school district and linked me to the school’s response (http://www.lmsd.org/sections/news/default.php?m=0&t=today&p=lmsd_anno&id=1137) as well as filling me in on the current theory floating around where he lives, which is this:

    “The current theory is that the student in question somehow acquired a laptop of another student, and the second student at some point reported their laptop as lost or stolen. (Notice the court document is very careful not to mention what kind of “improper behavior” is being attributed to the student in question, which has led to speculation that it was theft, but there’s no official statement on that yet, and probably won’t be unless this actually goes to court…)

    Each of the laptops is equipped with “remote tracking” (ie. anti-theft) software, which, as noted in the school response, can be used to track down a lost or stolen laptop, and can take a *single* still image with the webcam of the operator and the screen. (I’m told it can also disable the computer…) The fact that the laptops contained this software wasn’t a secret — a lot of people already knew about it — and I’m told that it was mentioned to the students when they first got them, so they would know what to do if their laptop was lost or stolen. It had, in fact, been used already a number of times before to locate lost and stolen laptops (including at least one which ended up in China…). It had *only* been used to track down lost or stolen laptops. Of course, now with this court case, they’ve had to disable that software.”

    Now, no matter who took the picture or whether or not the kid stole the laptop, I think the key issue here is that it is obvious that the parents did not have to SIGN anything in order for the laptops to be issued. The class action suit would not get anywhere if the school could pull out a file of forms that the parents had to sign which said that this was a feature and that there were policies in place for it to only be used in circumstances of theft.

  67. “I never understand how people can simultaneously assert that an institution is both incompetent AND capable of pulling off a huge conspiracy.”

    I don’t for a minute believe, and I hope no one else does, that the school or employees of the school are sitting around wasting their time staring at the feeds from the kids’ webcams.

    What I believe is that installing the capability to spy on someone, WITHOUT THEIR KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT (thereby distinguishing it from stuff like OnStar), whether or not you ever use it, is a massive infraction of privacy.

  68. And, whether or not you intend it as some grand conspiracy, or even whether or not you do it on purpose for nefarious reasons. If you knowingly install spy technology on things to distribute to other persons, THAT IS A PROBLEM no matter what you do or don’t do with it, ESPECIALLY if you’re a government entity.

  69. I’m guessing the reason that no charges have been filed is not because there’s nothing really bad happening, but as I mentioned before, the laws probably aren’t keeping up with the technology. If there’s no law that says you can’t install a remote-activated webcam onto a computer as part of its description of wiretapping, they can’t be charged. But they CAN be civilly sued on the civil rights grounds, and a judge just might agree with the plaintiffs here, and be well within the law to do so.

    I do appreciate someone’s admonition up above that these are the claims of the plaintiffs and not proven facts, though. Time will show what the merits are, but I really don’t think there should be any question that if the representations of the plaintiffs as to the facts are correct, there’s bad stuff happening here..

  70. Ron B – I don’t care about the particular situation mentioned. I don’t care what this kid was doing or why the school activated the web-cam. The PROBLEM is that I don’t want ANYONE having access to video of my daughter as she gets ready for bed at night etc.. I can’t think of a circumstance where this camera would be appropriate and I feel as though there are other ways to track devices. It is completely unreasonable to hand out computers with devices that are CAPABLE, whether intended or not, of taking pictures of children at any time – regardless of who knows about it.

    If each student had control of this feature it wouldn’t be such a problem. The problem is that some random person has control over it. I don’t exactly feel like this is some huge plot or something, however, I do feel like it is a huge invasion of privacy and that it’s creepy to think about what life would be like if you knew that you were constantly able to be watched by someone.

  71. I don’t really see this as a FRK issue. It’s a big planet. At any given time someone out there is doing something crazy, stupid, or both. If this allegation is true, these people are in a whole lot of trouble and not just from FRK parents.

    The thing is that not every isolated case of stupidity represents some sort of societal trend. Some are just isolated incidents of stupidity. I think this is one of those cases. I think FRK should be about reversing real societal trends, such as removing swing sets and requiring expensive background checks for every adult who offers to volunteer at a school. There is a danger is going overboard by generalizing every fringe story. In doing so FRK becomes more of a fringe movement itself, and thus less relevant to the vast majority of parents.

  72. This made me think of George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984. I thank god we have a free press through which people can speak out against such an outrage. A public school principal is a government employee who has no business spying on her students at home.

  73. I suppose we all knew our country would eventually come to the point where Big Brother is LITERALLY watching. This, of course, is not just a private crime, but the violation of the 4th Ammendment, as public schools are agents of the government.

  74. I’m thinking people jumped the gun and created false conclusions to this one. We shouldn’t rush to judgement – the simplest explanation, that the computers were equipped with anti-theft devices, and that the technology was being used for such, makes sense. Often people don’t think of the unintended consequences of such things. Agreed, if the intent was to spy on children – which I seriously doubt, that would be horrible. Let’s not fall into the trap of creating mass paranoia, that which we ourselves detest, just because a single isolated incident strikes a chord.

  75. This is definitely another example of how the pace of technology is outstripping the knowledge base about that technology of “those-in-charge”, resulting in poor decision-making. School administrators (at least those 35 yrs old and above) really don’t “get” technology; it’s IT guys/gals and kids who use it more naturally. I think this case is less Orwellian (although I love that reference and it is kinda true…) than a clash of cultures, so to speak.

  76. I’m also glad that I know this sort of thing can happen so I can prepare myself!!!!

  77. Kim- The intent doesn’t matter here. It’s the fact that the school district did not require the parents to sign something that notified them of this feature. Whether the district’s intent was just to use it for anti-theft or not is irrelavent. With the feature there they COULD use it to spy if they felt they had reason, or someone with access could feasibly spy just for fun. Neither of those scenarios is acceptable unless the parents are willing to take the risk and they would have to have been notified and sign something to express that they were willing to take the risk. They weren’t, and that is a problem.

    NJMom- I agree that’s probably part of it, but I think it’s also a matter of the people who implemented this not consulting any sort of legal counsel about it. I can’t imagine any legal counsel letting them go through with this without a consent form for the parents that includes information about the security feature in question and the policies in place to keep it from being abused.

  78. The real tragedy:

    77 comments here and only one or two people are saying, “Gee, we should know the facts before we rush to judgement.”

    I consider free-range parents to be more reasonable than the average parent (reasonable means ‘capable of using and likely to use REASON’), but most of you have decided you know what’s really going on here and passed down sentences. “Put them on the sex offender registry!” etc. “Shove a laptop in their …”

    Mob mentality does not become you.

    We’re supposed to be the ones showing our kids how NOT to run around screaming “Pedophile! Child molester!” when some situation comes up where a crime *could* happen.

  79. In my comment about the registry I meant that if they DID capture images of any highschoolers in a state of undress or intimate circumstances then they should be put on it. Mostly because it’s stupid of them not to have considered that this security feature could easily do that by accident. I mean, really, you give high schoolers a laptop, they sit it in their bedroom and you just happen to activate the webcam while they’re dressing. If this feature automatically takes the picture upon activation then they have just produced child pornography. I’m advocating a harsh punishment for monumental stupidity that could and should have been avoided. And I feel this is a little different than the small stupidity that results in many teenagers’ lives being ruined by the registry.

  80. Did anyone see Frontline: Digital Nation on PBS? It features a school in Manhattan which is doing the same thing! The strange part is that the context does not reflect the disgust it should.
    Watch it here: http://bit.ly/WZdi7
    It’s an eyeopener!

  81. This is SO not relevant, but it’s hysterically funny anyway, about a… missing child alert.

    http://notalwaysright.com/ah-mothers-part-4/4319

  82. “The thing is that not every isolated case of stupidity represents some sort of societal trend. Some are just isolated incidents of stupidity.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with this. I honestly think this is a case of rank stupidity in the implementation of technology far more than it is either a subtle or overt attempt to gain access to student behavior. But it still needs to be firmly opposed because it is the same tool that someone could use to do something sinister. There should be “zero-tolerance” on this sort of thing — not that the unintentional offender should be treated as harshly as the one with evil plans up his sleeve (just like the kid with the butterknife shouldn’t get the same punishment as the switchblade wielder), but that it shouldn’t be allowed to stand.

  83. Nice blog, i like it, its informative,
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    Outrage of the Week: School Gives Kids Laptops Then Uses them To Spy!

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  84. okay, I got impatient and didn’t read all of the posts, and I apologize. I think this appalling because I question the “need” for each child to have his or her own laptop.

    A little background: I’m a 31 y.o. undergrad, worked full time for awhile while taking classes 1 or two at a time because, frankly, anyone with a lick of sense knew the economy was starting to suck. Then I got to a point where I couldn’t work AND pursue my degree and further career goals, so now, for the first time EVER, I’m JUST going to school.

    The long and short of it is that for every 10 computers I see in a lecture hall, 9, sometimes 10 of them are NOT used for notetaking. I’m certain there are students who DO in fact, have machines and don’t bring them, because frankly, they’re a distraction. If it ain’t the laptop, it’s the iPhone, and I’ve seen that used in small discussion sections and lab, and only once did someone use it for something practical (displaced nuclear medical technician finishing her degree too used it to time a reaction).

    Also, these days kids are walking around with sometimes a few thousand dollars worth of electronics between their cell phones, iPods, laptops and whatever. There has been a SHARP uptick in campus thefts in recent years than when I first started out, and I think it has a lot to do with opportunity. When I started school, cell phones and laptops were a luxury and probably weighed 20 lbs to boot. Maybe this veers into “helicopter parenting,” but really… would you send your child to school in a diamond tennis bracelet? Then why are you sending them with thousands of dollars in high end electronics?

    So, I personally think that “laptops for every child” programs are seriously wastefully, educationally suspect and detrimental to crime rates.

  85. @ Casey – every single computer with a webcam (e.g. most laptops now a days) have this capability built in or easily installed. PC Anywhere is a common web tool that allows one to take control of his/her PC. Macs have the same.

    So…. (and this is the big if) IF the school had a policy and procedure to ONLY use this technology when the laptop was reported stolen or lost AND it was used in that way in this case, then I think the school is right. After all, you’re not infringing on the privacy of the person who reported it stolen because they don’t have it anymore. And the possessor/user of the stolen laptop doesn’t have a presumption of privacy.

    Of course, this technology could be abused by the school district. It could even be abused by a student who loans their laptop to another and then reports it stolen in order to get that person in trouble.

    I think that the problem here is a lack of clearly defined security and privacy protocols. (e.g. a signed form is required to report the laptop stolen, activating the webcam feature is protected by a secure login which also takes a picture of the person activating it, etc).

  86. Not sure if anyone reported to you what the district’s response was, but here is a quote from a letter that went home to parents:

    “District laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. The security feature, which was disabled today, was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student.
    Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The security feature’s capabilities were limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.”

  87. This isn’t about whether or not the school did anything inappropriate with the technology or will ever do anything inappropriate. It’s about access. School admins don’t have the right to rifle through my purse when I’m not looking and make copies of the keys to my apartment in order to protect school property I might have. Yes, the laptops are their property, and yes, they have a right to protect that property. But 1) if they are going to do this, they need to let everyone know and 2) there are less intrusive ways to protect their property.

    When I told my fiance this story, he had an interesting idea: Make sure the only people who can activate the cam remotely are the students/families that are borrowing the laptop. That way, if it’s stolen, they can use it to help recover the computer and there’s no opportunity for abuse.

  88. PartyPiper – I’m pretty sure I have used more paper and pen for doodling, writing nonsense and making paper airplanes than I ever have for serious notetaking or essays. But it was still useful for me to have access to paper and pens. This trendy Ludite attitude drives me crazy. These tools aren’t paper equivalents. When I was bored in a lecture I sat at the back and did a crossword or chatted with friends. That was no more useful (or less rude) than playing a video game. But being at ease with technology is essential in today’s workplace and having thoughtless access is exactly how we ensure people become so familiar with them that they use them without thinking.

    While laptops aren’t yet an essential part of the k-12 school experience, students who have been brought up to communicate naturally through them will be much more at home in the modern office.

    On topic – Good reminders about not jumping to conclusions. Though it seems even the school board realize they should not have gone about things the way they did. I’m glad the school district had a reasonable intent behind their poor behavior. At least I don’t have to come to terms with the idea a school district actually thought they should be monitoring their students at home.

    I don’t see a practical way to implement DirtyHooker’s idea that only the borrowing family should activate the technology (if the software and hardware allow it, you aren’t going to be able to lock it down to those people). So if I were going to let my kid accept one of those laptops I’d want to know what procedures and auditing they had in place to ensure the system wasn’t abused. Something the school district didn’t touch on in their letter.

  89. Umm, speaking as a recent teenager, having a personal laptop means occasionally changing my clothes while the computer’s on. Therefore, it’s very likely that this school district is (wait for it) guilty of child porn! God, people suck.

  90. [...] Outrage of the Week: School Gives Kids Laptops Then Uses them To Spy! Readers — This is just incredible! A school in suburban Philadelphia issued its kids laptops without mentioning [...] [...]

  91. I agree that this surveilances are becoming outrageous. They now start from tracking children. I hope they don’t move on to tracking every employee who are given a laptop or a blackberry next.

  92. This is disheartening, and outrageous at the same time. My question is this: Which parent suggested this? This feature is not included with all laptops, and the funding source must have known this was being purchased. As a parent, I would be furious and needless to say there would be a huge lawsuit at our school if such an invasion of privacy occurred.

  93. I think regardless of what their “intentions” were, the person or persons that made the actual DECISION to give these free laptops (knowing they were equipped with REMOTE access webcams) to MINORS, should be CHARGED!! It is very apparent that they might have some form of “Child Porn” intentions, Pedophile, or want to “Peek” at children in various forms of undress. You know they seen underage children without clothes on. (If My neighbor was caught “Peeking” at my daughter they wouldn’t hesitate throwing him in jail.)
    If it was my child they were watching, they would not want to know what I would do to them when I caught up with them on the streets…After of course, I sue THEIR PANTS OFF… Good luck suburban Philadelphia’s future newly extremely rich Parents!!!

  94. yea this is so so so strange that there is something up. Between this and the arrest two days ago of a twelve year old girl was arrested for doodleing her boyfreind’s name and the word love on the school desk…

    someone sure doesn’t want the computer and TV remote clicks to be going somewhere else right now. i call this an interference tactic to get us looking at and thinking about something besides whatever it is that someone does not want us to be seeing in the media right now…

    The corporations and their legislative sweethearts have no financial boundaries now as they may now spend the money that the people who work for them makes for them to put anything they want on the people’s computer screens and TVs. That also keeps their minds off of the children that were born to their ancesters that they decided weren’t their children well they never seen them well they must have when they went out to the slave sheds…

  95. i am white and i do not agree with any prejudice except of course i am prejudice against prejudice people

  96. @helenquine – I agree with PartyPiper, and I don’t think I’m a Luddite since part of my job title is Digitization Project Manager. Internet access is more distracting, (some studies are even starting to call it addicting), than paper and pencil. At least one Polytechnic school is reconsidering their policy of students bringing laptops to class because of the level of distraction.

    I also don’t buy the “kids need computers in school to get used to them in the workplace” theory. My elders at work, in their 50s and 60s, didn’t have computers growing up, and when they were introduced to computers, they had to use much more sophisticated skills than the average worker nowadays – anyone remember when a working knowledge of DOS and C++ was needed to successful operate their computers? The stories they tell of grappling with this new technology 20 years ago impress me.

    Digital technology is actually getting easier and easier, practically mindless, to use . It also is changing rapidly. And kids, especially in high income districts, have lots of access to it outside of school. I don’t think it will take much for kids to pick up the average technology needed on the job once they enter the work force. If kids are in specific technology classes, then I can see the benefits to temporarily assigning them a laptop to take home, especially if they are using an uncommon software. Otherwise, I’d be leery of districts that tout this benefit – I’d worry that they are focusing more on flash than substance.

  97. yea slow play us back to the stone age susan 2

  98. Susan2 – There’s a sea change in communication and networking that is going on in the social and work spheres. I definitely think that schools will be less relevant to their stakeholders if they stay out of it. Not to mention they’ll never be able to work out how they can use the technology well unless they try – and it’s the reaction against that sort of experimentation that I find Luddite in nature. We’re still at the beginning of this revolution. There are downsides but we can’t minimize though or gain the upside unless we try things out.

    The way people are using technology today isn’t so much about picking up technology skills – as you point out, that is becoming easier – it’s about integrating different communication mediums into the way we go about our lives and so changing the way we access and disseminate information and make decisions.

    And I do remember when a working knowledge of DOS was necessary (though C++ was never a useful skill for users outside of specific applications). I’ve helped a bunch of nonprofits introduce technology to their workforces and volunteers. The people with less exposure to technology and generally to new ideas, were at a distinct disadvantage and struggled to a much greater extent. But it wasn’t because they didn’t know DOS or which keys to strike – that were easy to overcome. What was hard was communicating new concepts and developing technology use into a habit that came naturally.

  99. This is such an eye opener. I never would have dreamed that there is a remote access capability on any computer. Frightening to say the least.

  100. If it was only an anti theft device then why did they deliberatly not tell anyone it was there? The mere fact that the parents where not told is an idication it was to spy on the kids otherwise why not be open about it.

  101. My nephew is a freshman at the school. My sister was aware of the use of cameras last year because one of her friends has a daughter who lost her computer privileges. The girl stole someone else’s computer and she was tracked down through this webcam system. I forgot to ask her about the signed waiver, so I can’t verify if that is true.

  102. @helenique – I totally agree with you on the sea change in technology. If fact, a large chunk of my job is encouraging people to integrate new approaches to technology into their work in various parts of the non-profit sector (mainly libraries) , not only to serve customers better, but to better publicize themselves, make people aware of what they offer, and, frankly, increase their chances of receiveing funding.

    I still don’t think that kids need their own laptops in school, and I would even step out on a limb and say they don’t really need technology classes. My kids go to school in a poor district (87% free lunch), so I do agree that there is a beneift to introducing students without access at home to the physical trappings of the technology, but I don’t think it’s mandatory. I think critical thinking, creativity, and questioning approaches will get them much further in integrating and evaluating these technologies in the future. I work with people of all ages, and although young people are much quicker to pick up on the practicalities of technology (what button to push, how to load a video on uTube), I find that their grasp of how things work behind the scenes or understanding how technology might be used to reach your ultimate goal is no better, likely worse, than oldsters.

    Sorry to get on my soapbox, but I’ve worked through a decade now of people grabbing on to the next glitzy thing and sinking a lot of time and money into it without thinking WHY they are doing it. I think if kids are given a good general education, then they will be a lot more able to do that in the workplace, then if they are given a lot of toys to play with. However, I sometimes cynically think that the powers that be design education precisely so that kids will focus on small bits of information so they will more easily fit as a cog in the wheel. Truly questioning things can cause a lot of disruption.

  103. An update you may or may not have seen: not only did he get in trouble for something done in his house, after being spied on by the school without warning, but apparently they thought he was doing drugs when he was eating candies. Good grief.

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100221/2118128243.shtml

  104. Well, yes Ron B. you can be convicted for being undressed your own home. There is a young man who was making coffee at 5:30 AM in his own home naked. A woman with her daughter walked by, AND WAS ON HIS PROPERTY, and looked in his window. He was arrested and charged and will maybe have to register as a sex offender.

  105. Hopefully this problem can be resolved by the parties concerned so as not to disadvantage any party

  106. Don’t know if anyone saw the recent Washington Post article on the distractions of laptops and how some university professors are now banning laptops in the classroom. One professor at UColorado-Boulder got into a debate with students about how young people use technology and are better at multi-tasking than older people. She decided to conduct an admittedly unscientific experiment. Her students who were heavy laptop users in class received the same average grade as the students who didn’t show up for class at all – a lower grade than those who didn’t use laptops or used them sparingly. See http://tinyurl.com/yhcgxlw

  107. I know I’m arriving to the comments a little later, but….

    This is what attorneys are for. I hope the school district gets the legal equivalent of a meteor dropped upon them.

  108. If the laptop is in a kid’s room, it may catch them in an indecent state. Having access to that image is enough to put the school board members and those monitoring the computers on the offender registry.

  109. I got what you mean , thanks for posting .Woh I am lucky to find this site through google.

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