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

Absolute Software will update its LANRev to disable camera feature

February 22, 2010 04:06 PM ET

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."

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