School Uses Laptops to Spy on Kids: The Update. Really Weird Update.

Hi Folks! Just read this bizarre new wrinkle on TechDirt about the case of the Pennsylvania school that gave its 1800 students laptops and then used them to spy on the kids — 42 times! While the school claims it activated the cameras only when trying to track down a lost or stolen computer, nonetheless the original student we were talking about here was disciplined for selling or taking drugs. That’s an activity the kid did in his own home, as witnessed by a school administrator  via a secretly activated laptop.

And the administrator witnessed wrong! The drugs turned out to be Mike & Ike candies, says TechDirt! And now my worry is not just that the school was spying, and not just that it got it all wrong, but that someday kids WILL be spied on and WILL be disciplined for eating candy! Or, God forbid, homemade baked goods! (See below.) Aieeeee! — Lenore

44 Responses

  1. As a teacher with an administrative certificate, and as a parent, I’ve been reading this story from multiple perspectives. (I still remember when a student at our school was given a 10-day suspension for showing another kid a toy gun on the walk home from school. Took weeks to get “Hard Copy” out of the parking lot.)

    This kind of stuff just gives me the heebie-jeebies. Somebody somewhere clearly was not thinking.

    It was interesting, as well, to listen to the counter point. Check out the administrator’s rebuttal:

    http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local-beat/WebcamGate__Raw_Video_of_Lindy_Matsko_s_Statement_Philadelphia.html

    Thanks for putting this up on the radar!

  2. There are far better ways to track laptops than a photo such as GPS. If the intent was to monitor what is done with the laptop, a keylogger program would show all activity but would be tedious to sort through every letter pressed while using the computer to find a prohibited activity (related to schoolwork) being done.
    I have a similar program I installed on my MacBook Pro to take and email a picture if the laptop is moved or the keyboard is used. A loud car alarm alert is also set off if someone is trying to steal it. I never activate this program. Some of the security tips mentioned elsewhere in the yesterday’s blog about Mark Twain such as choosing several people to watch your stuff is unlikely to get 3 dishonest individuals vs if 3 people were the ones doing the asking if they could keep an eye out. I go to the same coffee shop where there are plenty of familiar people to ask. Barring that, I just use a cable lock.

  3. I watched that video with my teenaged daughters and she didn’t succeed in making any of us believe one word she said. If she intended to garner sympathy by being tearful, it was very bad acting.

  4. I hope they get sued for a lot of money..I think some of them deserve very harsh punishment.

  5. He should be punished for eating Mike and Ikes, those things are gross. Sheesh kids today . . .

  6. Someone this stupid should not be in the education business.

    And Lisa, they’ve already been sued. It’s a class action. It will cost the poor taxpayers of that town millions.

  7. This school administrator should be criminally charged. What if they spied on students while they were undressed, or worse? Who’s to say that DIDN’T happen?

  8. Make her register as a sex offender! Poetic justice?

  9. The child needs counseling. Have they checked his parents’ history with DCS? Who lets their teens eat candy? What else have we been missing in teens’ bedrooms all these years?

  10. This whole story gave me goosebumps. I had recently read Cory Doctorow’s book ‘Little Brother’. It’s supposed to be science fiction. It starts with a kid having to deal with being spied on thorugh his — wait for it — school supplied laptop.

    Chilling when reality catches up with SF.

  11. @ HappyNat – as it happens, last night when my sweet tooth kicked in my corner store was out of jelly beans, so I made do with Mike & Ike. (Seriously – I am so busted!)

    Last Saturday I told frequent former commenter Alison Fairfield (she’s sworn off social networking until she gets her 3-child household organized, also something about some Greek stables she needs to clean, but she says “hi” to everyone) that Lenore had broken a huge story. And then there it was on Good Morning America on Monday. As one journalist to another: high five, low down, in-country soul-shake dap, SCOOOP!

    But the bottom line is that being able to watch teenage kids in their bedrooms without their knowledge or their parents’ knowledge is trolling for child porn, de facto and de jure, and a whole bunch of iducators need to wind up in general population until they can carry an armadillo and six bowling balls with no hands (thank you for the line, Joseph Wambaugh, but according to a semi-reformed career criminal who is a very dear friend of mine, that really is what happens to “short eyes” in the joint) and on the registry for life. GMA said that both the local DA and the FBI are looking very hard at this; I suspect there will be some pretty serious prosecutions.

  12. Not sure if it was posted on the other story here (I scanned the comments and didn’t see it), but there is an excellent technical write up of this, with plenty of righteous outrage thrown in for good measure.

    If you’re interested in the technical side, as well as the political, ethical and moral sides of this story, do read it.

  13. Unrelated, again, but check out the fourth and third paragraphs from the end:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/25/fashion/25Therapy.html?pagewanted=2

    “But in the last five years, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of kids who don’t have the strength in their hands to wield a scissors or do arts and crafts projects, which in turn prepares them for writing.”

  14. This whole case skeeves me out in ways that I cannot even begin to describe in an online comment, but I think the thing that freaks me out the most is this: on the Facebook page devoted to this case, a completely unacceptable proportion of LMSD *parents* are opposed to filing a class action lawsuit because a) they think the criminally actionable violation of their children’s civil rights isn’t that terrible a thing and b) they don’t want their property taxes to go up as a result of a lawsuit or court settlement. It rather makes me wish I had gone to tech college and developed that technology that allows me to stab rock-chewing morons through the internet, I’ll tell you that right now.

    Note: I would have more pity for the whole ‘school taxes going up oh noooooooooes!’ thing if Lower Merion Township weren’t one of the single richest burbs in the entire United States. I am not making that up. And, like, they appeared to appreciate that an actual *crime* had been committed against their children, one which is being investigated by the FBfreakingI.

  15. @ Myranda – ohhhh… I really like “rock-chewing morons.” I am so gonna steal that line. When possible, I’ll give you credit. But since it describes so perfectly both the board of the Houston Independent School District and the Texas Legislature (among many others) I’m going to be using it a lot.

  16. SKL — Are you sure you want to know what goes on in a teen’s room when the door is closed?

    Steve — Personally, I think the administrators themselves should be sued, so the money comes out of their own pockets. As you said, a class action suit against the school as an entity will just hurt the taxpayers (and, by extension, the kids).

  17. I watched this on the news in Australia and was outraged. What a violation.

  18. Myranda, that is such a good line it just lept the Pacific and into my repertoire of sassy insults. I’ll use it widely and well.

  19. What astonishes me as this thing unfolds is the amazing arrogance of the school officials: to try to stonewall on this when their network tech has been bragging about the system seems to be a low percentage gambit.

    He should clearly have been aware of the potential for abuse when he designed the setup; how can the administrators of the school be so lacking in a sense of ethics as to imagine that they have the right to invade and take pictures of activities in student’s home in a clandestine manner?

    For those who have argued that since it’s a school computer they had the right to do so, I think your totally wrong. Note that, so far as we can tell, students and their parents were not told about the capability, and the students were required to use the school issued laptop, both at school and to complete assignments.

    We seem to be losing the capacity to discriminate between that which we can do, and that which we should do.

  20. I don’t know if we’d be able to install GPS tracking devices in/on kids with all those metal detectors in schools. Hmm. Looks like they may need to move on to plan C…stay tuned…I’m sure we’ll hear something soon.

  21. *This* is why there is, and always will be, a mini Sponge Bob band-aid over my webcam lens.

  22. rrriiiiiggggghhhhhttttttt. Mike & Ike are gateway drugs. The school there is wrong.

  23. I’m always the first to side with students and against administrators–especially when they seem as utterly dislikable as this woman does. But I’m also very hesitant to believe that I have the whole story in matters like this. Maybe she didn’t actually spy…? My mind is certainly open to the possibility that the story has been blown way out of proportion.

    If she did spy, though, I don’t want to see a lawsuit: we have far too many of those. I want to see her, and anyone else who was involved, fired. The point is not to raise insurance rates or make lawyers rich; the point is to keep these people out of our kids’ schools.

  24. @ Kenny

    “The point is not to raise insurance rates or make lawyers rich; the point is to keep these people out of our kids’ schools.”

    Well, yes. But that’s what legal costs do. Offering up an assistant principal for firing is easy and cheap. There’s a whole culture of arrogance and disrespect for basic rights in play here. Making a horrible example out of a few districts may encourage others to not go down the same road.

    And, for those who suggest covering the camera, how do we know that they can’t turn on the microphone? Spying is spying. I wouldn’t trust this school system an inch. Anything that could bypass the ability to listen in would probably involve what would be considered damage to the computer.

    Based on information available to date it looks like this district should be nailed to the wall as a horrible example to other districts.

  25. As I, and some others to varrying degrees suggested following the initial post, without presuming the guilt or otherwise of any party, this is a police matter of quite some gravity.

  26. In addition to all the privacy questions this raises, what I haven’t seen anywhere is concern over the fact that the school administrators immediately assumed that the student was using drugs. Built-in webcams are generally not cinema quality. Lighting in teens’ rooms (or any bedroom) is not conducive to evidence collecting. So, to instantly leap to the conclusion that the kid is using drugs seems more like a Rorschach test for the administrators, and was not borne out by the facts.

    Yes, some kids abuse prescription drugs. Some take other drugs. But most do not. When it happens, it makes the news because it’s unusual. It’s is a pernicious symptom of our time that people are so willing to leap to conclusions on one piece of information and apply their own assumptions and fears. We are connected to hundreds of tweens and teens, and it’s encouraging to see how many of them are good kids, serious students, and, yes, kids. They can act out, be silly, even do stupid things. But the pervasive assumption that something is inherently evil reflects on the narrow-mindedness of the adults not the kids.

    What happened to assuming that kids are good? What happened to getting facts and eschewing emotionalism and unfounded fear? Where did our pathological solipsism come from where people really believe that anything bad in the world can happen to them, regardless of statistics or reality? (Well, that’s an issue for another day.)

    The best thing out of this is that I cannot wait to see this as a plot line on “Law and Order”

  27. @Kenny – If no one spied on the kid, then how did they get a picture of him in his bedroom from the webcam?

  28. Bill –

    The problem is that school districts come to be seen as easy prey for any socially-conceived ill, the lawyers see an easy way to make money, and this makes the school-district panicky over doing _anything_. The fact is, we _want_ our schools trying new things. They can’t do this if they think that anything they try is going to get them sued because of some boneheaded move during the implementation. Instead, we should just fire the boneheads and fix the problems. No reason to get lawyers involved. The PTA and the public simply need to rise up, and get rid of everyone who thought this was a good idea, or who knew about it and kept their mouth shut. That may be everyone, or it may be just a few people. But that keeps from having the schools be viewed as easy pickings for any disgruntled parent who needs extra cash.

  29. My thing is this: we really, really, really need to microchip and embed cameras into our children. Now… hear me out. If we microchip our kids, we’ll be able to track them via GPS – anytime – day or night! No more sneaking out to visit girlfriends or boyfriends, no more saying they’ll be in one place only to find out they’re in another. Imagine the safety in being able to sit down at your computer and follow them on a map. Then, how wonderful, to activate the camera embedded into their foreheads (they couldn’t wear hats, obviously) to get a “street view” of what they’re doing! When we find out that little Johnny isn’t with Billy but with Susie – why, we could activate the camera and see him going right at it with her and call her parents to intervene if they haven’t clicked on Susie’s camera yet. Barcoding would really be the next logical step. Honestly. Think of how much easier it would be if we could just scan our kids at school… the administration would know in a flash who was absent, who was present, who got an A on their papers.

    Naturally, a great extension to all of this is to set up cameras to monitor every little thing they do – in their cars, in their bedrooms…

    Best part is… when they’re 30… we can still keep watch over our little darlings. I mean… really… who ever wants to let them go?

  30. Jonathan-

    I’m not at all sure that we really want schools trying _new_ things in the manner that has been customary. New Math, abandoning phonetics, deciding self-esteem (earned or not) is more important than actual knowledge, self-directed learning….all adopted without actual testing and measuring comparative results.

    The result has been a generation of innumerate, often functional illiterate graduates with limited exposure to real science and real history. Not promising as members of a representative democracy.

    The ultimate responsibility for this debacle are the taxpayers who weren’t minding the store and who made poor choices about who should supervise the schools. Poor choices have costs.

    I agree that there needs to be a thorough housecleaning. But it won’t happen without pressure from fear of legal consequences. It’s a poor way to operate, but we’ve built a system that leaves this as the only way to effect change.

  31. Doesn’t this whole “let’s spy on the tykes with our evil laptops” scheme violate some federal wiretap laws?

  32. @Jonathan Bartlett you write “The problem is that school districts come to be seen as easy prey for any socially-conceived ill.” Even to the extent that this is true, it doesn’t mean that when school personnel do something really wrong the schools shouldn’t be subject lawsuits.

    Suppose a school did this: hired a school nurse. Had students make (accurate) complaints that said nurse had sexually assaulted them. Did nothing with the result that additional students were sexually assaulted by the nurse. Would you argue that no lawsuit should be brought against the school? Firing the nurse wouldn’t be enough, surely? It’s not just the nurse who’s guilty in that scenario, it’s the officials who had information and did nothing to protect the children.

    If any person or any organization gave (much less, as appears to have been true in this case, provided-and-required-used-of) my child (or me) a device that could be used by someone outside my home to take pictures inside my home without my knowledge and consent, I would absolutely prosecute that person/organization to the fullest extent of the law. I absolutely agree with those who have argued that in this case (assuming the facts are as we understand them to be based on Lenore’s — and linked — posts) doing so is important not only to punish the school in question but to set precedent and get the attention of others who might be tempted to do what this school appears to have done.

  33. UPDATE!!! FBI Launches Criminal Investigation into Webcam Spying. Lookee here!

    http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/tech/FBI-Launches-Criminal-Investigation-into-Webcam-Spying-Source-84805867.html

  34. I wondered when the admission of spying would come out. Not like they could avoid it very easily with the evidence. Should be interesting to see how the criminal investigation comes out. I’m more interested in that than the lawsuit, although I consider a lawsuit reasonable in the circumstances.

  35. Christopher: I wonder how the student in question was doing academically. In these days of No Child’s Behind Left Unkicked, schools have a strong incentive to get rid of students who might pull their test scores down. That’s part of the reason why what used to be regarded as mischief worthy of a detention is now regarded as crime worthy of an arrest, court appearance, and fine to the parents.

    Bill: Most of those educational innovations you decry have been practiced, for the most part, by high-performing suburban schools. The results you decry, on the other hand, come mainly from looking at poor inner-city schools where they’ve never gone back to the basics because they never left them in the first place.

  36. […] School Uses Laptops to Spy on Kids: The Update. Really Weird Update. Hi Folks! Just read this bizarre new wrinkle on TechDirt about the case of the Pennsylvania school that gave its 1800 […] […]

  37. 1. Steve makes a good point; those cameras could have unwittingly put the school in possession of child pornography. Really really stupid move.

    2. It’s sad that this has to come down to a lawsuit, because it will cost the taxpayers. I don’t know much about the law here, but could the school be forced via lawsuit to fire the responsible parties and adopt a sensible privacy policy? Or could they be sued for $X, under the condition that said money would be returned (minus legal fees) if certain demands are met? Maybe it could be settled out of court.

  38. I was once addicted to Mike & Ikes. The it was JuJuBees. As an adult I have moved on to the hardcore candy from Britain- Jelly Babies. What will become of me?

  39. Those administrators whould be fired, Period.

    And this should be a criminal case.

  40. I live in Philadelphia (very close to this school district in fact) and I am so shocked that this even happened since the administrators must have (or should have) known they would have their pants sued off in an instant. Philly seems to be sue-happy anyway, and this school district really is a VERY wealthy area. That’s beside the fact that no administrator with any common sense would think they could punish a kid for something done in his own home with information gathered by secretly spying, right? Weird.

  41. For anyone who can stand Dr. Phil, his segment on Wednesday is about this topic.

  42. Later documents revealed that many other students had the webcams used on them. E-mails from school officals monitering them make comments about what they are seeing “It’s like watching a mini soap opera.” These kids were spied on for extended periods of time and officals have found photos collected from the webcams taken when the students were asleep in their beds, undressed from the shower, or talking to friends on the phone. I’m for using GPS to find the laptops if their stolen but these school officals really abused their power.

  43. what do you need?

  44. Someone this stupid should not be in the education business.

    And Lisa, they’ve already been sued. It’s a class action. It will cost the poor taxpayers of that town millions.

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