Remotely Activated Webcams Spell Trouble for Students
Article by George Norman
On 22 Feb 2010
The Harriton High School in the Lower Merion School District, Pennsylvania, via their 1:1 program, issued students laptops to use for studying and other school related things. The problem is that the laptops came with a built-in camera. On its own, this is not exactly a problem – a webcam can be very useful at times. The problems start when the school remotely activates the laptop’s camera to view what the student is doing – when the student is at home.

Blake, son of Michael and Holly Robbins, attends the Harriton High School and received such a laptop. The Robbins say that last November, the school accused their son of “improper behavior in his home”- they thought he was selling drugs, which turned out not to be the case. The school official backed up these “improper behavior” claims by showing some photos taken with the laptop’s webcam – while Blake was at home.


Okay, first of all, what a kid does at home is his own darn business. But taking pictures of the kid, while at home, by remotely activating the webcam on the school issued laptop, without letting the parents in on the fact that you can remotely activate the camera, now that’s on a whole new level of, well, stupid. ZDNet’s Christopher Dawson sums it up nicely:

“Not surprisingly, the Robbins have launched a lawsuit that has been granted class action status, allowing other parents and students to join. What I have to wonder is whose bright idea was it to fire up the webcams in the first place? And then show photos taken using the webcams to students? Seriously? I know us school administrators do some stupid things, but this should probably win an award of some sort.”

School district representatives admitted to activating the laptops’ webcams 42 times over a 14-month period, during the 2009-10 school year. They defend their actions by saying that each activation was meant to locate stolen or missing laptops. Out of the 42 stolen or missing laptops, 18 were eventually recovered.

“While we understand the concerns, in every one of the fewer than 50 instances in which the tracking software was used this school year, its sole purpose was to try to track down and locate a student's computer," District Superintendent Christopher McGinley said in a statement. "While certain rules for laptop use were spelled out - such as prohibitive uses on and off school property - there was no explicit notification that the laptop contained the security software. This notice should have been given and we regret that was not done."

The FBI is on the case, looking into possible federal law violations. So far the following come to mind: violating the Fourth Amendment, transgressing the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law.

Tags: Webcam, Internet, Harriton High School
About the author: George Norman
George is a news editor.
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