School secretly monitors students at home via webcam

Is big teacher watching your kids at home? That’s the question of the day, as the Lower Merion School District admits they had the ability to access webcams – without the users knowledge – on school-supplied laptops. Did teachers access the webcam of one student when he was at home?

It’s important to note, this is an allegation made by the family in a complaint filed in US District Court in eastern Pennsylvania.  From the complaint, courtesy Volokh Conspiracy.

2. Unbeknownst to [high school students and their parents], and without their authorization, [high school officials] have been spying on the activities of [the students] by Defendants’ indiscrimina[te] use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District….

23…. Plaintiffs were for the first time informed of [this] capability and practice by the School District when … an Assistant Principal at Harriton High School[] informed minor Plaintiff that the School District was of the belief that minor Plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the School District….

24. [The minor Plaintiff’s father] thereafter verified, through [the Assistant Principal], that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students’ personal laptop computer issued by the School District at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.

First of all, when you get free stuff from the school system – the government – remember, it’s not yours.

Dr. Christopher W. McGinley, superintendent of schools in the district, admitted the district had the ability to access the computer’s webcam when it is connected to the Internet. In his letter to parents and guardians, he states the feature was only used to find stolen laptops.

With his statement, McGinley is saying the assistant principal at Harriton High School never contacted the student about improper behavior at home, or showed the student photographic evidence captured from the webcam.

Yesterday, they turned off the “security” feature. My emphasis in bold.

Letter from Dr. McGinley to parents/guardians regarding laptop security

Dear LMSD Parents/Guardians,

Our history has been to go to great lengths to protect the privacy of our students, whether it comes to student health, academic or other records. In fact, many of you may remember the heated debate over whether to have security cameras monitor some of our food vending machines. Privacy is a basic right in our society and a matter we take very seriously. We believe that a good job can always be done better.

Recent publicity regarding the District’s one-to-one high school laptop initiative, and questions about the security of student laptops prompted our administration to revisit security procedures.

Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. District laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. The security feature, which was disabled today, 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.

Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature would be activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The security feature’s capabilities were limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.

As a result of our preliminary review of security procedures today, I directed the following actions:

  • Immediate disabling of the security-tracking program.
  • A thorough review of the existing policies for student laptop use.
  • A review of security procedures to help safeguard the protection of privacy, including a review of the instances in which the security software was activated. We want to ensure that any affected students and families are made aware of the outcome of laptop recovery investigations.
  • A review of any other technology areas in which the intersection of privacy and security may come into play.

We are proud of the fact that we are a leader in providing laptops to every high school student as part of our instructional program. But we need to be equally as proud of the safeguards we have in place to protect the privacy of the users, as well as to safeguard district-owned property while being used by students.

We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families. If you have any questions or concerns, please email us at info@lmsd.org. Additional information has been posted on our website, www.lmsd.org.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely,

Dr. Christopher W. McGinley
Superintendent of Schools
Lower Merion School District

2 replies
  1. Dimsdale
    Dimsdale says:

    Two words: duct tape.  Put some over the Big Brother's eye unless you need the camera.  Who is to say that the microphone isn't on and recording conversations, or keystroke recorders aren't being used?  Better yet, as any company can tell you, computer security is not infallible.  What if someone hacks into the system and starts taking videos of female students dressing etc.? Laptops are devastatingly cheap nowadays, and having your own is cheap insurance that the schools and government aren't spying on you.

     

    Who was it that said "any government big enough to give you everything you want is big enought to take everything you own"?

  2. PatRiot
    PatRiot says:

    1.  Caveat empton – buyer beware – especially if it is free.

    2.  Read the fine print on every contract.

    2. Ask the questions, do not assume.

    3.  It is your tax money – ask how it is spent.

    4.  Wwaht directive ARE they following.

    5.  Fight back on every thing or get used to saying: "Yes comrade.", "big brother" or  "HAL".

    6. 

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