Child porn webcam allegations in PA school district

Did a school in a Philadelphia suburb covertly spy on students in their homes, via their webcams? In the case of Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA) et al, the District is alleged to be in a whole heap of trouble: up to and including child pornography. In IT Blogwatch, horrified bloggers pick up their pitchforks, light their flaming torches, and march over to Harriton High School.

By Richi Jennings. February 19, 2010.

Your humble blogwatcher selected these bloggy morsels for your enjoyment. Not to mention Apple's reflection-distortion field...   Cory Doctorow blogs disturbing allegations from the city of brotherly love:

Laptops issued to high-school students in the well-heeled Philly suburb [of Lower Merion] have webcams that [allegedly] can be covertly activated by the schools' administrators. ... The issue came to light when [a] child was disciplined for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence.

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If true, these allegations are about as creepy as they come. ... The idea that a school district would ... use these machines as AV bugs is purely horrifying.
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The school District Superintendent, Dr. Christopher McGinley retorts:

The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops ... [which] are a frequent target for theft. ... The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator's screen. This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.

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This feature has been deactivated effective today. ... [We] do [not] ... anticipate reactivating [it] ... without express written notification to all students and families.
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Jesus Diaz reports allegations that this wasn't an isolated incident:

[We were contacted by students] with details about what was happening.

Frequently, the green lights next to our ... webcams will turn on. The school district claims that this is just a glitch. We are all doubting this now.

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I questioned the IT guy about why it was happening he said that it was because people logged out when an application using the camera was on, he also stated that they could in fact go and look through your webcam it would just violate the fifth ammendment and that's why they didn't.

Today, their principal went on loudspeaker and said that all this was "not true."
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Alex Pasternack has a sense of déjà vu:

[It's] hardly news. Schools have been doing this for years. In ... Frontline’s recent documentary Digital Nation, a principal at a school in New York City ... uses preinstalled spy software to watch his students check their hair and Facebook.

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That technology has already killed their privacy may not be news to many kids. ... Maybe, in some twisted way, principals are using their network of spy webcams to teach a little object lesson, albeit a depressing and unhelpful one: you might be being watched.
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But Mistlefoot is worried about child pornography:

If even a single 14 year was viewed naked in the privacy of their own home by a covert camera laws will have been broken.

  A life sentence is what this guy faced...
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Jud Pratt agrees:

The individuals involved with this policy should be charged with attempting to acquire child pornography. ... The laptops ... could easily have been in the child's room where they would absolutely have a reasonable expectation of privacy. It's no different than if the teacher/administrator had drilled a peephole in that child's room.

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Also, if I were a parent, I would be unbelievably angry if school faculty came bursting into my home uninvited. ... School faculty only has a right to deal with a student's behavior when they are on school grounds or attending school functions.
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And shogarth stresses the difference between criminal and civil:

If it were my daughter's computer, I would not be talking about a class-action suit with a civil attorney. I would be sitting down at police HQ and the district attorney's office. ... They would need to face the felony charges that their behavior warranted. Once that was rolling, I would go after the individuals (not the district) for civil damages.

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I don't want to have to look my neighbors in the face when a fractional point increase in their property taxes is required to pay a civil settlement that made me wealthy. I have no problems bankrupting the people who authorized and deployed the tech.
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Meanwhile, mcgrew studies the law of the jungle:

If any of the parents are like some people I know, those administrators should be fearing for their personal safety.
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So what's your take?
Get involved: leave a comment.

 
 
And finally...

Richi Jennings, your humble blogwatcher
  Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. You can follow him as @richi on Twitter, or richij on Google Buzz, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, or just use good old email: itblogwatch@richij.com.

 
 
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