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Pa. school district denies spying on students with MacBooks

Claims it only remotely activated cameras to locate lost or stolen Apple laptops

February 19, 2010 07:16 AM ET

Computerworld - A suburban Philadelphia school district yesterday denied it spied on students by remotely activating the cameras on their school-issued MacBook laptops.

In a statement released late Thursday, Christopher McGinley, the superintendent of Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa., admitted that the MacBooks' cameras could be turned on without a user's knowledge but said that the functionality was part of a security feature.

"Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property," said McGinley. "The security feature 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." When switched on, the feature was limited to taking snapshots of whoever was using the notebook and capturing the computer's current screen.

Laptop cameras have only been activated for that purpose, McGinley continued. "The District has not used the tracking feature or webcam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever," he said.

On Tuesday, a high school student and his parents sued the district, claiming that the boy's MacBook had been used to spy on him in his home. According to the lawsuit, 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.

Doug Young, a spokesman for the school district, declined to answer questions about whether Blake Robbins' computer camera had been activated and, if so, under what circumstances. "I can't speak to the lawsuit," Young said.

The lawsuit speaks for itself, said Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This is utterly shocking, and a blatant violation of [the students'] constitutional rights," Bankston said Thursday, citing the Fourth Amendment after reviewing the Robbins' complaint. "The school district would have no more right to [use the laptop's webcam] than to install secret listening devices in the textbooks that they issued students."

Bankston suggested that students should tape over the lens of their laptops' cameras when not in use.

McGinley confirmed that the district had disabled the camera activation feature Thursday and would not switch it back on without the written consent of students and families. The Robbins' lawsuit alleged that the district had not told students or their families of the activation feature when it handed out the MacBooks. All 2,300 students at the district's two high schools have been given notebooks.

The district intends to contest the lawsuit, said Young. "We will prevail," he said.

Lamm Rubenstone's Mark Haltzman, the Robbins' attorney, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

The Robbins family has asked for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and requested that the case be granted class-action status so other students in the district can join the suit.

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

Read more about Privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.



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