Software maker blasts 'vigilantism' in Pa. school spying case

Absolute Software will update its LANRev to disable camera feature

The company selling the software used by a Pennsylvania school district to allegedly spy on its students blasted what it called laptop theft-recovery "vigilantism" today.

Absolute Software said it dissuades users of theft-recovery software from acting on their own. "We discourage any customer from taking theft recovery into their own hands," said Stephen Midgley, the company's head of marketing, in an interview Monday. "That's best left in the hands of professionals."

Midgley confirmed that Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa. was running Absolute Manage, formerly known as LANRev, which Absolute Software acquired last December. The suburban Philadelphia school district purchased and deployed LANRev prior to Absolute's acquisition, he said, noting that most school districts buy the software for power management features that let IT staff remotely power down systems.

Calling LANRev a "legacy" product, Midgley also said that Absolute would ship an update in the next several weeks that will permanently disable Theft Track, the name of the feature that lets administrators switch on a laptop's camera to take photographs of a potential thief after the computer is reported stolen. "It really doesn't serve any purpose," said Midgley of Theft Track.

Last week, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., on behalf of their 16-year-old son Blake, sued Lower Merion, accusing it of spying on students and students' families using the iSight webcams in the MacBook laptops issued to each high school student in the district.

According to the original complaint, Blake Robbins was accused by a Harriton High School assistant principal of "improper behavior in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop as evidence. In an appearance on CBS's Early Show Saturday Edition Robbins said he was accused by the assistant principal of selling drugs and taking pills, but he claimed the pictures taken by his MacBook's camera showed him eating candy.

Since the Robbins family filed their lawsuit last week, Lower Merion has announced it has disabled the camera activation feature, denied that it turned on the cameras for any reason other than to track lost or stolen laptops, and promised to cooperate with any law enforcement investigation.

In a follow-up motion last Friday, the Robbins asked U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois to issue a restraining order blocking the school district from activating the webcams, functionality the motion labeled "peeping tom technology."

Absolute Software is probably best known for its LoJack for Laptops, a consumer-grade notebook recovery service, but it also sells the Computrace line to businesses and organizations.

All its theft-recovery software relies on a different model than the former LANRev, said Midgley. "We give no theft recovery tools to our [LoJack and Computrace] customers," he said. "The only truly proven model is a managed service model."

To kick off the recovery of a stolen or lost laptop, customers first must file a police report -- not a requirement of LANRev -- and only then contact Absolute, which in turn tracks the location of the missing machine via its IP address when the system goes online. Absolute employs a team of former law enforcement professionals who reach out to local police, provide them with the location information and then get out of the way. "We take the responsibility out of the hand of the end user," said Midgley, "and do the work for them."

Absolute claims that it recovers about 75% of all laptops reported stolen.

According to Lower Merion's superintendent, the district has switched on the camera of a lost or stolen MacBook 42 times thus far this school year, and found 18, for a recovery rate of 43%.

Any other approach to theft recovery is a waste of time and a potential minefield, said Midgley. "It just gets into potential vigilantism. Even if you are able to locate the laptop on your own, what do you do then?" he asked. The idea that police would be able, or willing, to follow up on individuals' reports that they had located their laptop is unsupportable. "Someone says, 'I think my laptop is here,' but that could just send the police on a wild goose chase."

Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young confirmed that the district uses LANRev.

Absolute's Midgley declined to speculate about whether his company might be liable to legal action for LANRev's part in the alleged spying on students, but put the responsibility solely on the school district.

"The customer acted on their own to do what they did," he said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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