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Exploring the School Spying Scandal

2010 March 3

There’s been a lot of interest in one of the cases I mentioned last week in which it was discovered that school officials were spying on kids and their families in their own homes by surreptitiously activating webcams on school-provided laptops.

There’s a lot of conflicting information on what exactly happened and what will happen regarding this case, so I set out to collect all of it into a single story.

  • First of all, the case came to light through the filing of a class-action lawsuit, which you can find in this PDF.  The basic charge is straightforward: the school was spying on children without their consent.  It came to light when a student was accused of dealing drugs based on images from the webcam feed, but it turns out that he was just eating Mike & Ikes.
  • A response to parents from school district sheds a little more light on the specifics of the situation.  The remote-webcam-enabling feature of the laptops was implemented as a security measure – if the laptop was reported stolen and was then used, the webcam would assist in recovering it.  This is a not-so-uncommon feature of laptop security programs, and from other sources, I’ve deduced that the specific program in question is called LANrev.
  • The school has now been barred from speaking with students or parents about the case under court order, which may explain the sudden lack of information coming out of the school district.  You might think this a recommendation from the school system’s own lawyers, but it’s actually from the judge – any formal communication must be approved by the prosecution’s lawyers before it can be sent out officially.  They are also forbidden from changing anything about any of the laptops currently with the software under similar guidelines.
  • The school’s records indicate that webcams have been activated only 42 times in roughly the past year, and only in incidents where it was believed that the laptops were stolen.
  • In addition to the civil matter, the FBI has begun an investigation to determine if any violations of federal laws regarding wiretapping and computer-intrusion have taken place.
  • Witold Walczak, legal director of the PA ACLU commented, “This is an age where kids explore their sexuality, so there’s a lot of that going on in the room.”  Now we can add child pornography to the list of problems associated with this case.  Consider the teen that leaves their laptop open on a desk while they are in their bedroom.
  • Spying on kids through webcams is apparently not all that uncommon.  Scan ahead to 4:37 of this video from PBS to find a school administrator proudly explaining how he watches the desktops and webcams on his students in order to keep them on task when they’re working.  Through webcam snooping, they discovered, for example, that many students use their webcam as a mirror – they will turn the webcam on, style their hair/makeup/etc, and then turn it off.  In one example, the administrator surprise-instant-messages a student that he’s been spying on to tell her to get back to work.  What’s especially troubling about this video is the total lack of regard for the privacy of the kids – this is treated as an innovative approach to policing child behavior.

Here is the main problem: The school claims they only activate webcams when the laptops are stolen, but the central kid’s laptop was never reported stolen.  Thus, either some violation of the school’s own monitoring policies took place, or such policies were never really in place to begin with.  Additionally, the school has not come out with a flat-out denial of wrongdoing, only saying that the program had a purpose and was not abused, while simultaneously shutting that program down.

My suspicion is that while official school policy was against spying, the temptation for school officials wanting to sniff out illicit activity was simply too great.

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  1. Shawna permalink
    March 28, 2010

    This is why I want to cry when the secondary education majors I teach start yawning when I speak about Foucault.

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