School Surveillance Via Student Laptop Webcams

School-issued laptops are being used to spy on children both at school and at home, according to the filings in Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA) et al. Administrators were able to activate the laptop's webcam at will, and take pictures of children and their families.

The issue came up when the Robbins' child was disciplined by the school for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence.

If these allegations are true, it's not as if we haven't been warned. Cory Doctorow, writing in his 2008 book Little Brother, wrote about exactly this sort of practice:


(Little Brother cover [non-etext version])
I got back to class and sat down again... I unpacked the school's standard-issue machine and got back into classroom mode. The SchoolBooks were the snitchiest technology of them all, logging every keystroke, watching all the network traffic for suspicious keywords, counting every click, keeping track of every fleeting thought you put out over the net. We'd gotten them in my junior year, and it only took a couple months for the shininess to wear off. Once people figured out that these "free" laptops worked for the man -- and showed a never-ending parade of obnoxious ads to boot -- they suddenly started to feel very heavy and burdensome.

Cracking my SchoolBook had been easy. The crack was online within a month of the machine showing up...
(Read more about Doctorow's SchoolBook laptop)

See also the scoop on ParanoidLinux.

Update: 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 the 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."

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

End update.

From Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (pdf) via BoingBoing.; update from Computerworld.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 2/17/2010)

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