Lawsuit Alleges School Spied on Student by Remote MacBook Camera Activation

| News

A lawsuit from the parents of a high school student makes the shocking allegation that school officials spied on a student at his house by remotely activating the camera on his MacBook and taking a picture of what the school said was "improper behavior in his home."

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the suit, which was filed in a U.S. District Court by Michael E. and Holly S. Robbins on behalf of their son. According to the suit, unnamed officials at Harriton High School in Rosemont, PA, spied on the student through the camera, and an assistant principal at the school then confronted the student for his "improper behavior," citing a photo taken during the episode.

The Lower Merion School District issued MacBooks to all of its 2,290 high school students, including the students of Harriton High School, and the lawsuit claims parents were never told that the camera on the laptop could be remotely activated. The suit also claims that activating the camera remotely is a violation of both federal and state wiretapping laws, as well as a violation of their son's civil rights.

In addition, the suit claims that activating the camera could result in, "images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various states of undress."

A spokesman for the school district denied knowledge of the suit to The Inquirer, and stressed that the MacBook program had been beneficial to students.

"Our district was one of the first to provide free laptops to all of our high school students," spokesperson Doug Young said. "This initiative has been incredibly successful and well received in our school community."

Thanks to our friends at Loop Insight for the heads up on the suit.

Comments

Bryan Chaffin

I was flabbergasted by this report. If this lawsuit’s allegations are accurate, the actions of this school are simply inconceivable.

It’s not that I have a problem believing that a student would do something “improper” with a school-owned laptop, and that said improper behavior would be a violation of the terms of use required by many schools when they issue laptops.

But monitoring student behavior at home, even on a school-owned laptop, is beyond egregious, especially when it involves secret video surveillance. It’s beyond frightening.

ilikeimac

Who has time, or bandwidth, to monitor 2,290 video feeds? You can add stealing the family’s home internet bandwidth to the list of damages.

geoduck

My friends think I’m nuts but I keep a piece of electrical tape over my MacBook’s camera unless I’m using it.

Bryan Chaffin

Well, you are a little nuts, geoduck, but it’s one of the reasons we love you!

Helge

Again, I request a kernel level function witch always requires user confirmation for activating the camera wink

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I love how they call him an “assistant principal” and not a “vice principal”. But seriously, if the allegation is false, Mr. Vice Principal is going to have a summer home where the Robbins family previously lived. My bet is that the images were acquired, but that the means wasn’t as sinister as alleged. Perhaps he was video chatting with another student and the video ended up on her MacBook. Or he had intentionally or inadvertently taken movies of himself. Brought in for service or repair, the files on a MacBook were discovered and the “vice principal” alerted.

“Our district was one of the first to provide free laptops to all of our high school students,” spokesperson Doug Young said. “This initiative has been incredibly successful and well received in our school community.”

It’s a good lesson to parents that “free” does not always mean “free”. If you can afford to buy a laptop for your kid that the school would otherwise give him, you ought to seriously consider the benefits of ownership, such as vice principals not having any legal authority to dig through your kid’s files. It’s also a lesson in why some adult in or close to the household needs to be competent and comfortable with computers. They should know how to password protect the file system. They should be able to explain to the kids the dangers inherent in some kinds of data. Half the kids are engaging in some kind of “sexting” activity. Like with pregnancy and STDs, it’s up to responsible adults to help them think things through and minimize the downsides.

chris

If only the ipad had a camera!!!

ilikeimac

Bosco’s theory certainly sounds far more plausible: that the student took the picture(s) himself and they arrived in the principal’s hands via some less sinister means.

However, according to the first paragraph of page 7 of the suit: the assistant principal verified “that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students’ [sic] personal laptop.”

That’s not conclusive, but that’s what the lawsuits says that the assistant principal said to the student when she showed him the pictures. And even if she said it she may have been mistaken or covering for someone who gave her the pictures.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@ilikeimac: It’s plausible that the vice principal believed that. It’s plausible that she was pulling his chain to tease out more information. If she actually believed it to be true and did not report the concern to people in the district, that should be a fireable offense. Remote controlled cameras in kids’ rooms? Are you freaking kidding me?

This would be a pretty tough hack to execute and not get noticed prior to now. These devices don’t have built-in 3G, so they’d be relying on wireless or wired connectivity inside the homes. It’s 2010, and most households have 1 or more computers, so there’s likely a router. The MacBook would have to poll some server for instructions or connect and maintain the connection to wait for recording instructions.

I’m with Bryan though. If this happened as alleged, just freaking wow. Everyone involved will be serving long jail sentences. This is beyond outrageous.

Nightwriter927

Bosco,

Many school districts use the term “assistant principal” as opposed to “vice principal”, so not sure why you’re finding that odd or humorous.

While your theory may seem plausible, it flies in the face of the facts of the article and the premise of the legal action. It was clearly stated that the assistant principal used the remote activation to view the student in his home. I’m sure the attorney for the parents of the student gathered facts before filing a frivolous lawsuit that had no chance of being heard. Frankly, I’m surprised this type of action hasn’t been in the news before, considering the arrogance of some school administrators. In my 20+ years of work in public schools, it’s seldom that I was impressed with the integrity and ethics of administrators.

It was rather humorous to me that the spokesperson for the school district completely avoided even a mild comment re. the lawsuit, instead extolling the virtues and success of the computer program in the schools. Either the spokesperson for the schools is being kept in the dark about the suit, or the person is lousy at PR. Pretty lousy at spinning a story, too.

Dean Lewis

HA! I’d probably put tape over the cam as well. I turn the camera I have attached to my Mini to the wall when I’m not using it. I certainly don’t want some hacker catching me picking my nose…

CCardona

Uh, it’s humorous as “Principal of Vice”, Nightwriter927, assuming “Vice” was involved?

They don’t say what the “improper” behavior was, doesn’t everyone want to know?

vasic

HA! I?d probably put tape over the cam as well. I turn the camera I have attached to my Mini to the wall when I?m not using it. I certainly don?t want some hacker catching me picking my nose?

Dude, you have a Mac! What hacker could possibly get in and commandeer your webcam???

As for the lawsuit, some software daemon would have to be running on all these school MBs, “phoning home”. Much like Undercover, that monitors IP address, streams live desktop image and takes clandestine pictures/video using iSight when activated remotely by the owner. I don’t know much about American school district administrators, but somehow I don’t believe they would bother to install such a tool on all those laptops. We’ll just have to wait and see where this suit goes. Let’s not forget, people; these are teenagers we’re dealing with, and in order to protect themselves from embarrassment in front of their peers, they’ll do anything, and that includes suing their (vice/assistant)principal.

Ethan

I graduated from Harriton the year before the one to one laptop program. Before the program, bins of laptops were kept in some classrooms. In order to find a missing/stolen computer, the tech department hacked into the missing computer and took a picture of the person using it, who was confronted about the theft. But, I think the laptop was still close to the school and was on the school’s wireless network.  That is reasonable. But, the home address listed on the lawsuit is 20 minutes driving from the school itself and 10 minutes driving from the administration building. So I don’t see how they could have hacked into the machine. Could someone explain?

ilikeimac

@Ethan I don’t think “hacked” is the right word for what they did. @vasic’s comment provides the most likely scenario, which is that they installed a program on the laptops before giving them to students. Unbeknownst to the students, this program was running invisibly, reporting back to the school, and sending them video or pictures as requested.

Many pieces of software have been written to do this kind of work; their purpose is to aid in the recovery of stolen laptops, but using them to spy on people who are legitimately using a loaned or gifted laptop is utterly wrong.

ethan

thanks @ilikeimac for explaining it. I’m not at all a “computer person” so pardon the wrong term.

Our district likes spending a lot of money of technology so they probably installed that kind of program. 

One more thing: on my Mac, a little green light next to the camera goes on when it’s in use. Do these software programs disable that?

geoduck

Bosco?s theory certainly sounds far more plausible: that the student took the picture(s) himself and they arrived in the principal?s hands via some less sinister means.

Quite right. He took the pictures and inadvertently e-mailed them to the principal. That sort of thing is a lot more likely than the school spying on him and every other school laptop out there. I have Users that ask me if the company watches their every e-mail and every web site they go to and I always tell them that while THEORETICALLY they could, frankly nobody has the time.

So I don?t see how they could have hacked into the machine. Could someone explain?

In a Windows machine you could do this with VNC as long as you knew the IP address and had a few other things set up on it. With a Mac I’m not sure the best way to do it. I think I’ve heard of Back To My Mac being used for this sort of thing.

vasic

I could also see the following scenario: somewhat geeky kid is on Skype with one of the cool girls. One thing leads to another, the girl dares the boy, he does stuff and she snaps some pictures via Skype. The pictures end up with cool girl’s friends, one of whom passes them onto the (assistant/vice)principal. The guy fakes “remote viewing” to scare the kid. The kid is so massively embarrassed, so he fakes this story for the parents, leading to a lawsuit.

Not entirely unlikely.

vasic

In a Windows machine you could do this with VNC as long as you knew the IP address and had a few other things set up on it.

Mac has a built-in VNC server screen sharing. It is enabled via System Preferences. However, this definitely wasn’t the weapon of choice, as it only gives you the view of the user’s desktop, and not from the iSight.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@ilikeimac That scenario certainly is technically plausible. However, it seems unlikely to me that this behavior would not have been discovered and some stink made over it before now. If that is indeed how things worked, the US Attorney needs to get involved and prosecute every employee of the district remotely involved for trafficking child porn. But that’s why I’m skeptical on the premises of the suit. People aren’t that oblivious.

ilikeimac

@Bosco Agreed. If they did in fact install software to do this then it was probably done as an anti-theft measure with most people being unaware of remote photo-taking feature, or unwilling to believe that someone with access would abuse it.

acesnation

They have used the camera to recover a stolen computer overseas, so they can definitely spy on us.

Lee Dronick

is it possible that someone with administrator login and password could use Back to My Mac to take the photo?

I just did an experiment where using our home network I connected to my wife’s iMac in her study, she is at work, Then I used screen sharing to turn on PhotoBooth and took a photo. I actually caught the beagle sleeping on the spare bed in the bedroom/study. It was funny because he was snoozing until the PhotoBooth countdown and associated beeps began which woke him up with this perplexed look on his face. Then I muted the speaker and took another photo. Someone up spying could have turned off the sound before snapping a photo.

Will the iSight stream video or take photos with the screensaver activated?

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Sir Harry, you’d never get through a router from the outside trying to do this via screen sharing, unless the parents were complicit and set up port forwarding and a static IP on the LAN. I’m not knowledgeable about how Back to my Mac works specifically, but the target would have to call out to a middleman server and then establish a connection for something to take remote control, whether that be screen sharing, ssh, or some customized protocol.

Lee Dronick

Sir Harry, you?d never get through a router from the outside trying to do this via screen sharing

Thanks Bosco

ilikeimac

With Back to My Mac enabled, Harry’s scenario most certainly works, even from outside the house, but this seems like the least likely scenario I’ve heard yet.

Back to My Mac does dial out to a third party, namely Apple’s MobileMe servers. By using the MobileMe servers and protocols like UPnP, it “just works” without needing any special router setup.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Alright guys, here is the definitive skinny on how they did this, a statement from the school.

Just freaking wow. They are disabling this effective today. People need to go to jail for even the smallest misuse of this.

Furthermore, Apple needs to issue a statement about its involvement in giving advice about any software or services provided to the district that enabled this. If there was any involvement—innocent or otherwise—Apple needs to correct it now. This is a market killing event.

ilikeimac

@Bosco New facts! Yay! The speculation was getting a bit too tedious. I don’t see anything in the statement to indicate that Apple supplied the anti-theft software though, and I’ve never heard of Apple making such a product.

computerbandgeek

One more thing: on my Mac, a little green light next to the camera goes on when it?s in use. Do these software programs disable that?

The green light on every iSight camera is physically wired to the camera action, meaning it is physically impossible for the camera to be on without the light being on. Steve Jobs made this very clear when the first built-in iSight cameras were unveiled in the (iMac/PowerBook, don’t remember which came first).

This means that if this kid was having pictures taken of him, he would have known unless he was already using the video camera for another purpose.

BlueDjinn

To those speculating that the story is bullsh*t, or misinterpreted, may I present:

Superintendent confirms spying

I visited the website of Harriton High School, went to “Announcements” and found this:

(bold italics mine)

LMSD response to ‘invasion of privacy’ allegation

Updated 2/18/10 5:26 PM

Dear LMSD Community,

Last year, our district became one of the first school systems in the United States to provide laptop computers to all high school students. This initiative has been well received and has provided educational benefits to our students.

The District is dedicated to protecting and promoting student privacy. The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today.

Lee Dronick

The question remains what software was used.

DMO

This is a class action filed 2/16 in the Eastern District of PA.  The complaint is available on PACER, but it does not describe the “improper” conduct (sorry CCardona).  It does say 1800+ students are affected.  The defendants are the school district, the school board and the superintendent - not the assistant principal.

I wonder who is protected by the statutes, though; is it the user or the owner of the computer.  The owner appears to be the school.

I’m amused that the school has now told all potential thieves that the security system has been disabled.

I hope this goes to trial, but I doubt it.

Next up: TSA full body scanner images on U-tube.

Terrin

If you do a Google search about turning a Mac’s camera on via remote, you will find that it is quite possible to do this. The intended purpose is to catch thieves.

Lee Dronick

Update on my experiment.  I opened iChat on our iMacs, enabled video, then activated the screensaver on one of them. The iSight continued to stream video with the screensaver on, though you could still see the green LED indicating the camera was on. Now this may not be news to some, if not all of you, but I don’t use iChat very much.

Ethan

according to students at the school, the green camera light would sometimes come on even if the user was not using a camera based application

the misconduct is ALLEGEDLY drug use.

stevenecole

In a letter to parents, the Lower Merion School District has admitted having and using a “security feature” on the MacBooks that were given to students. This “security feature” is supposed to have allowed the school district to locate “lost, missing or stolen laptops,’ and the district claims that the “security feature” was only activated if a student’s laptop had been reported as “lost missing or stolen.”

Someone has to be lying here, and it seems plausible that the liar is the school district. Why? Because the lawsuit of the student against the district makes no mention of any activity that might have triggered the district’s use of the “security feature,” and if the student had in fact reported his computer as “lost, stolen, or missing” but omitted to mention this in the lawsuit, the lawsuit itself would be immediately dismissed.

Here’s the relevant part of the school district’s e-mail to parents:
“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 was 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.”

The e-mail is signed by “Dr. Christopher W. McGinley
Superintendent of Schools Lower Merion School District”

sithload

This is a link to the court case filed over the incident, and gives some more details about what happened. There’s missing information, but a bit more than what’s discussed here, and in the article.

http://media.philly.com/documents/robbins17.pdf

Missing info includes who took the picture from the webcam; it could be the student, and he could have saved in on a shared network folder, or accidentally shared it, or shared it with someone else who told on him. We’ll have to wait for more details on the case to find out if the school district took the picture, or if the student took the picture.

If you’re interested what one of the laptops from the school looks like, a local blog has a post from someone who checked out how locked down the machines actually are.

http://www.saveardmorecoalition.org/node/4212

G

an article on computerworld confirms that the laptops were loaded with software that could remotely activate the camera at any time….

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

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.

Dr. McGinley (obviously an Ed.D) needs to be proud of immediately terminating the vice principle and anyone else who participated in activating the camera on the Robbins’ kid’s laptop. He wins turd of the week hands down. Tiger isn’t even going to be a close second.

Lindy Mastko, the vice principal, should leave the country. May her name forever be spoken in contempt and disgrace for being an overpaid busybody who would spy on kids in their rooms. What a disgusting piece of human garbage. I hope some of the kids and parents will protest outside her office until she quits. She should be mercilessly mocked.

Montresor

I don’t think folks realize just how easy something like this is to set up. Frankly, give me two days and I can write a background app that a) creates a video/audio streamer, b) connects to a web script and every 30 seconds saying “I’m available at ip address x”, and c) packages everything into a nice little web interface for the monitoring user so all they have to do is click on a link and a flash window pops up with audio and video. All this would happen without the laptop user knowing. You wouldn’t even have to write any of the hardcore code, just grab a few open-source tools and write some glue code in something like Ruby (installed by default on every mac). A little more work and I could whip up a recording tool for the monitors.

The key here isn’t the difficulty in creating such a system. The difficulty is with installing it on the kids computers, but since the school apparently had admin rights, that’s not an issue.

Of course, this all begs the question: why for the love of little green apples did anyone at the school think they needed this? Were they so completely idiotic as to not see that this would only get them in exactly this situation? That just strikes me as the kind of stupid that is a danger to your fellow human beings.

One thing: my understanding is this was a private school. The rules are a little different if so, and I can tell you from personal experience that private school folks have absolutely no regard for the privacy of the students in their charge, and often not a whole lot for the parents of those students either. I can easily see this happening. I just hope someone gets jail time for this, not just a fine.

ethan

One thing: my understanding is this was a private school.

It is not a private school, it is a public school. I graduated from it.

Lee Dronick

I don?t think folks realize just how easy something like this is to set up. Frankly, give me two days and I can write a background app that a) creates a video/audio streamer, b) connects to a web script and every 30 seconds saying ?I?m available at ip address x?, and c) packages everything into a nice little web interface for the monitoring user so all they have to do is click on a link and a flash window pops up with audio and video. All this would happen without the laptop user knowing. You wouldn?t even have to write any of the hardcore code, just grab a few open-source tools and write some glue code in something like Ruby (installed by default on every mac). A little more work and I could whip up a recording tool for the monitors.

I was wondering if the school had used Apple Remote Desktop to turn on the iSight and take photos, but you make a plausible argument.

Montresor

It is not a private school, it is a public school. I graduated from it.

Well, then the several someones responsible should be sent to jail. It’s that simple. Here is a quote from the school’s response:

<quote>Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.</quote>

I don’t see that the school has made any allegations that the student had stolen the laptop, so this statement appears to be utter bullshit. The feature was available and they were clearly using it to invade at least one student’s privacy. One wonders how often this feature was used for other purposes - I’m guessing that the plaintiff’s lawyer has issued a warrant to search the hard drives and email accounts of any monitors who ever used this feature, and you have to wonder what they will find.

vasic

Am I the only one here who is a parent? I certainly wish my kid’s school had the same functionality on their loaner laptops. Furthermore, this provided me with the idea of installing exactly that on my kid’s laptop, so that I can always check what’s going on in that room.

Until children become adults, their privacy belongs to their parents and whomever the parents designate as caregivers (which to me may extend to school).

Well, then the several someones responsible should be sent to jail. It?s that simple.

Dr. McGinley (obviously an Ed.D) needs to be proud of immediately terminating the vice principle and anyone else who participated in activating the camera on the Robbins? kid?s laptop. (...) Lindy Mastko, the vice principal, should leave the country. May her name forever be spoken in contempt and disgrace for being an overpaid busybody who would spy on kids in their rooms. What a disgusting piece of human garbage. I hope some of the kids and parents will protest outside her office until she quits. She should be mercilessly mocked.

Only in America can one find this level of lynch mob mentality.

vasic

What amazes me here is that, when a high-school student was caught by his school doing something he shouldn’t have been doing (looks like it was drugs), his parents actually file a law suit against the school because of the way he was caught????? Something is fundamentally wrong with this picture.

As I said earlier, I only wish my kid’s school had the same level of vigilance over the kids they educate. I hope those parents who are now in on this thoroughly misguided lawsuit either come to their senses and start thinking about actual parenting for a brief second, and what is its purpose, rather than thinking of whom to sue next (in hope of some financial windfall).

With all the admiration the world generally has for America, cases like these make it very easy to stereotype it as litigation-happy, irresponsible nation with thorougly screwed-up priorities.

BlueDjinn

Am I the only one here who is a parent? I certainly wish my kid?s school had the same functionality on their loaner laptops. Furthermore, this provided me with the idea of installing exactly that on my kid?s laptop, so that I can always check what?s going on in that room.

Until children become adults, their privacy belongs to their parents and whomever the parents designate as caregivers (which to me may extend to school).

As a parent myself, I say that you’re insane.

We’re not talking about a 3-year old here. We’re talking about a 15-16-year old high school student. Are you seriously saying that a parent has the right to spy on their 16-year-old daughter when she’s, say, taking a shower? After all, she’s not “an adult” yet (legally) and you say she has no right to privacy from her parents, so apparently you’re free to burst in on her whenever you wish.

Aside from the perv scenario, yes, a child *does* gradually get the right to some level of privacy, starting with the right to go to the bathroom/bathe/get dressed by themselves when they’re perhaps 4-5 years old and onwards from there. Otherwise they’ll never learn to trust you or anyone else.

Are you proposing that we insert subcutaneous RFID tags under the kids’ skin to help track them? Scary stuff.

geoduck

I don?t think folks realize just how easy something like this is to set up. Frankly, give me two days and I can write a background app that a) creates a video/audio streamer, b) connects to a web script and every 30 seconds saying ?I?m available at ip address x?, and c) packages everything into a nice little web interface for the monitoring user so all they have to do is click on a link and a flash window pops up with audio and video. All this would happen without the laptop user knowing.

The tape over my MacBooks camera doesn’t seem so nuts now does it.
smile

‘scuse me while I go make a foil hat.

BlueDjinn

What amazes me here is that, when a high-school student was caught by his school doing something he shouldn?t have been doing (looks like it was drugs), his parents actually file a law suit against the school because of the way he was caught?

And I say again, you’re insane.

“Doing something inappropriate” could mean any number of things, and “inappropriate” is subjective. It could mean he was jerking off or screwing his girlfriend (in which case the school admin is guilty of trafficking in child pornography). It could mean he was wearing a shirt that didn’t match his pants. And yes, it could (and probably did) mean he was smoking a joint or drinking a beer.

What of it? Unless they caught him stabbing someone to death or whatever, it’s none of the school’s damned business.

As for the parents, how do you know they didn’t punish their kid (assuming he actually was doing something THEY deemed inappropriate) AND sue the school for invasion of privacy, which is completely appropriate?

vasic

Most certainly, the child does gradually get increasing levels of privacy. However, nobody can convince me that I have no right to find out what exactly my child is doing in his/her room when I’m not in there. Obviously, if it is a boy, it would be the father’s (or male teacher’s) responsibility to review this data, and for a girl, the mother/female teacher would do it. Apparently, nobody has issues with pat-downs at airports, even though this is a massive invasion of personal privacy, but god forbid ANYONE (including parents!) would EVER check on their teen kids to see if they are smoking, drinking, doing drugs or having unprotected sex!

As for RFID tags, no need, as long as they carry their cellphones and have them on at all times. By the time my kids become teens, I’m sure even iPhone will have the “kid tracking” feature (sending GPS data to parents). Many other phones already have this.

It is our duty to create responsible adults out of irresponsible teens. Thirty years ago (when we were teens), this was much easier; there was no abundance of information from everywhere; our only source was the limited amount of TV that we were able to get, and some teen magazines. We didn’t even have TVs in our rooms. Today’s teens get to learn much more than what their parents would want or allow. The only way to counter this uncontrollable flow of information into our teen’s minds is to constantly keep an eye on them.

Any parent with a sane mind would prefer that the school actually tells them when their teen child is caught doing something that wasn’t right (and I’m not talking about “jerking off”, as you said it, or wearing mismatched pants and shirt… I’m talking about things that are universally wrong by any global standards—smoking, drinking, drugs).

This country has really messed up their priorities. “National security” over personal privacy; personal privacy over responsible parenting…

Montresor

Until children become adults, their privacy belongs to their parents and whomever the parents designate as caregivers (which to me may extend to school).

I am in fact a parent - 3 kids. First of all, I respect my children as people. That doesn’t mean I treat them as full-grown adults. But it does means I treat them with the same respect I want them to treat me with. I suspect this has a lot to do with why we have a great relationship, one in which they come to me for advice with difficult, even embarrassing personal questions and decisions. You know - what a parent is *supposed* to be. I would never dream of invading their privacy in this way, because then all I’m doing is raising a kid whose privacy will constantly have to be invaded.

Any parent who delegates this role to a school - especially when the kid is in their own home - is a crap parent. It is your job to know what your kid is up to, at home, at school, when out with their friends. If that job is too big for you, then you shouldn’t have had kids, because that’s what being a parent is.

As for you people slamming America because of this - you’re out of your minds. America used to be a country where people defended their privacy and their right to be unique, different and individuals. This sounds a lot like people accepting anything as long as the trains run on time.

Maybe I’m the insane one and should just pack up my family and head to a saner country. The fact that this happened, and that people are accepting and defending it just makes it clear to me that I’m not in the right place anymore. God knows I don’t want my kids growing up in a place where this is normal or accepted.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@vasic If it somehow emerges that any students were remotely photographed in any state of undress, count on it, there will be an actual lynch mob. The possibility is certainly there, and accounts from other students that their camera lights would occasionally flash green make the probability likely.

The lesson, fortunately or unfortunately, is that the people who work at the school are not to be trusted. At my age, I can take that approach with the nuance it requires. That’s a lot tougher for a teenager to internalize. The teachers are fools and perverts, but you still have to play their game.

vasic

Intelligent and sensible argument.

Any parent who delegates this role to a school - especially when the kid is in their own home - is a crap parent. It is your job to know what your kid is up to, at home, at school, when out with their friends.

I couldn’t agree more. However, when school tries to help me with this responsibility, I certainly won’t sue them.

I also agree with your first statement (“I treat them with the same respect I want them to treat me with. I suspect this has a lot to do with why we have a great relationship, one in which they come to me for advice with difficult, even embarrassing personal questions and decisions. You know - what a parent is *supposed* to be.”), but only to a point. Treating them with respect isn’t directly connected to checking up on them. One really must be pragmatic here. When my kids become teens, I would want them to feel the freedom and privacy they believe they’re entitled to, so that I can maintain proper relationship with them. However, I would still want the ability to know what they are doing without them finding out. In other words, clandestinely spying on them. This may sound hypocritical, but I can’t be too idealistic when my children are at stake. They really are bombarded with completely unfiltered information, way before they’re mature enough to properly digest it. For example, there are tons of “Pro-Ana/Pro-Mia” sites out there that celebrate anorexia and bulimia (as valid life style choices) and provide advice how to practice it so that nobody notices. Under peer pressure, my daughter can easily find these and keep this away from me. Ability to check her computer logs for sites she visit is critical for me. At this point, she’s still little (so it’s all Playhouse Disney and PBS Kids), so I have some time to prepare for this. The point is, too much persuasive info is out there to which our teens can easily succumb. We really need a way to counter this.

BlueDjinn

“Most certainly, the child does gradually get increasing levels of privacy.”

That’s the exact opposite of what you said earlier:

“Until children become adults, their privacy belongs to their parents and whomever the parents designate as caregivers (which to me may extend to school).”

“Obviously, if it is a boy, it would be the father?s (or male teacher?s) responsibility to review this data, and for a girl, the mother/female teacher would do it.

No one has any idea what the gender was of anyone who was spying on any of the kids, nor which kids they were spying on. And it was a female administrator who was spying on the male student.

“Apparently, nobody has issues with pat-downs at airports, even though this is a massive invasion of personal privacy”

Yes, but you’re given TONS of notice, with big signs, loudspeaker announcements, a specific designated location and plenty of warning beforehand. Plus, the justification is to help prevent a bunch of people from being killed in a high-risk environment.

In this case, no one was told jack sh*t about a bunch of pervs and busybodies spying on their underage kids’ bedrooms.

“God forbid ANYONE (including parents!) would EVER check on their teen kids to see if they are smoking, drinking, doing drugs or having unprotected sex!”

That’s up to the parents, NOT the schools. If a teacher suspects a student is drinking or has a drug problem, they can express their concerns to the parents, but under no circumstances does a stranger have the right to spy in my house. For that matter, it’s not just the kids that they’re spying on—the webcam doesn’t care what room it’s in, or who’s in that room. Plus, it’s not just the camera—there’s a microphone which can be controlled remotely as well; now the school admin can eavesdrop on the parents discussing private matters as well, if they’re in earshot. This is also a direct violation of federal (and state) wiretapping laws. Since the school recorded the data, if they recorded the audio, they’re also in violation of Pennsylvania recording laws, which require all parties to be aware of any voice recording.

“As for RFID tags, no need, as long as they carry their cellphones and have them on at all times. By the time my kids become teens, I?m sure even iPhone will have the ?kid tracking? feature (sending GPS data to parents). Many other phones already have this.

What a relief that you don’t favor RFID tags “as long as they carry their cellphones”. And if they refuse to, you’ll apparently strap ‘em down and insert one against their will? You’re really starting to scare the hell out of me.

“Today?s teens get to learn much more than what their parents would want or allow.”

I don’t even need to respond to this one; it speaks for itself.

“Any parent with a sane mind would prefer that the school actually tells them when their teen child is caught doing something that wasn?t right (and I?m not talking about ?jerking off?, as you said it, or wearing mismatched pants and shirt?”

And how is the parent to know exactly when their child is being monitored? How is the *school* supposed to know when to tune in and when not to? Oh, that’s right: When the child is AT SCHOOL—and not in the going to the bathroom—is the time period where it’s reasonable to have school officials keeping an eye on their kid. If my kid gets caught doing drugs, having sex, etc AT SCHOOL, then it’s reasonable for the school to get involved. Otherwise, it’s not their jurisdiction, legally or ethically.

“I?m talking about things that are universally wrong by any global standards?smoking, drinking, drugs).

Really? GLOBAL standards? You are aware, of course, that the legal drinking age (and smoking age) in some countries is as low as 14 in many countries, and that some have no minimum drinking age at all? You are aware, I assume, that marijuana is legal in some countries? How about the age of consent? Again, in many countries it’s as low as 14.

I fear for your children if this is how you truly feel.

vasic

The fact that this happened, and that people are accepting and defending it just makes it clear to me that I?m not in the right place anymore. God knows I don?t want my kids growing up in a place where this is normal or accepted.

You should be fine. It seems that I’m the only one defending the school on this (perhaps it has to do with the fact that I didn’t grow up in America). Everyone else seems to be in agreement that the school should be severely punished (for, what was in my view, an effort to help the parents of this one teen kid with their parenting…).

Just to make myself perfectly clear, I believe in the right to privacy as one of the most fundamental rights a person can have. However, that right only extends to legal adults; I don’t believe any law (or common sense) should give this right automatically to children.

vasic

BlueDjinn:

You sound very much like a lawyer. At least, your approach to the subject seems to be from some legal point of view.

None of my arguments implied legal ramifications; they referred to common sense. My (very) reasonable expectation that my school will actually work WITH me (and not with some sinister intent) on supporting me in raising my children. My realistic concern that my children will learn things much sooner that it would be appropriate for them, only because all these things are very easily available for them. And my need to discretely control the fallout from all this prematurely learned stuff.

Exactly WHY do you fear for my children? Because I’ll try and make sure they don’t do smoking, drinking, drugs??? Or that my daughter doesn’t force herself to throw up and hides that from my wife and myself?

BlueDjinn

vasic—

Nope, not a lawyer, just a parent with, as you put it, common sense.

I fear for your children because you just stated, strongly, that you have absolutely no problem with some school administrator spying on your kids when they’re naked, listening in on every conversation that occurs in your household, and that you don’t believe that a 17-year-old has the right to go to sleep without you bursting in on them in the middle of the night to look for drugs.

There are reasonable levels of privacy—yes, even for children, especially once they hit puberty.

That’s my final response to you on this topic.

vasic

...“you have absolutely no problem with some school administrator spying on your kids when they?re naked, listening in on every conversation that occurs in your household, and that you don?t believe that a 17-year-old has the right to go to sleep without you bursting in on them in the middle of the night to look for drugs.”

Nowhere in any of my (at this point fairly numerous) posts did I state ANY of those things.

School administrator spying on my kids when they are naked would represent most serious breach of trust, as would listening on every conversation. And I would never burst in on any of my kids (I don’t even do that now, when they’re little) in the middle of the night, or any other time.

You completely misunderstood and totally twisted ALL my thoughts.

I have every intention to keep an eye on my children’s browser logs (Parental Control feature on Macs is perfect for this). And I can reasonably expect that my school will never abuse the trust I gave them when I registered my child(ren) there by doing anything even remotely inappropriate with respect to my children (or my family, for that matter). It is a fairly expensive school and I have a valid reason to expect better from them.

These are MY children. And I intend to make best possible adults out of them. Many tools are at my disposal. I’ll use whatever is necessary in order to achieve the goal.

BlueDjinn

Nowhere in any of my (at this point fairly numerous) posts did I state ANY of those things.

In your very first post, you stated that “Until children become adults, their privacy belongs to their parents and whomever the parents designate as caregivers (which to me may extend to school).”

If their privacy belongs to their parents, then their parents can do every damned thing I listed.

If their privacy belongs to those the parents designate as caregivers—in this case, the school—then the school can do every damned thing I listed.

Either kids have some amount of privacy or they don’t. If you’re gonna make a blanket statement that their privacy “belongs to the parents or caregivers”, then this is where it can lead.

Over and out.

vasic

You continue the “legalspeak”. Since we aren’t in a court of law, you simply can’t take that statement and interpret it literally. That would be silly.

My child’s privacy belongs to me (and whomever I choose designate). That does NOT mean that I should abuse that right and do every damned thing you listed (as I had said later). It just means EXACTLY what it means: that I have the right to control the amount of privacy that my child is entitled to; not any law, not any other entity, but only me.

As I said again; my intention is to use that right to privacy of my children to make sure they don’t do anything they shouldn’t be doing at their age. Not to burst into their rooms, have school snap naked pictures of them, spy on them in the shower. That is just totally absurd. I can’t imagine anyone reasonable would ever interpret my statements in such away (unless they are a lawyer, which you clearly stated that you weren’t).

I trust my school’s principals. It is a great school, and these are superb educators. I have no reason to believe they would every abuse this trust by snapping naked pictures of my children. That’s just insane. (clarification: this is a hypothetical proposition; my school doesn’t give out laptops and has no access to kids’ computers)

Chrisfs

However, nobody can convince me that I have no right to find out what exactly my child is doing in his/her room when I?m not in there.

You have the right to choose to find out that’s for sure,
But according to the article, the School District never informed the parents that they were doing this and never shared the pictures with the parents.
So it’s not an issue of you putting a camera in your kids laptop and watching them covertly, it’s a matter of a 3rd party and you can assume that it will be a person of appropriate gender, but since they haven’t even bothered to tell parents they were doing it in the first place, it sounds like they don;t care much about the parent’s wishes to begin with.

stevenecole

I wonder if someone who knows a lot about networking could answer four questions for me:

1. If one of these laptops were connected to the internet through a LAN and thus didn’t have a unique IP address, wouldn’t the district’s only access to the laptop be through the router that connected the computers on the LAN to the internet?

2. And if so, would there be any reason why, once the district’s “security feature” had accessed the LAN, it couldn’t access any computer on the LAN?

3. Finally, doesn’t the “security feature” that would allow the district to access a laptop that accesses the internet through a LAN have to have some way of breaching whatever firewall the LAN had in place to block unauthorized access to the LAN?

I’m not sure it’s relevant to these questions, but I have a child who is a student at Lower Merion High School, and who uses a LAN we have installed in our home to access the internet on the laptop he received from the school district. Which leads me to one last question:

4. If the school district has found (or been given) a way to invisibly access a computer connected to the internet through a LAN, am I alone in finding this utterly terrifying?

vasic

Well, most of the theft recovery software solutions out there provide fairly specific services. There is no two-way communication there. The software on the laptop periodically checks with the mother server, to see if the laptop has been reported stolen. If not, it doesn’t do anything.

When somebody reports the laptop stolen, a configuration file on the mother server gets modified. Next time the stolen laptops tries to connect to the mother server, it detects the change in the configuration file and launches the default script. The script usually snaps the picture with iSight, collects IP, DNS and TraceRoute information and sends it to the mother server. Server receives this information and triggers the action (sends an e-mail/SMS/phone call to the owner of the laptop with the picture file and other information).

So, no; even if your laptop was hooked up directly to the internet, with a public IP, there would be no way anyone would be able to ‘access’ the computer remotely just because the computer has this software installed.

In other words, the ONLY way anyone could take a picture remotely on any of these laptops would be by reporting them stolen, and the picture would only get taken if the computer is connected to the internet sufficient amount of time for that “phone home” software to kick in and check with the mother server.

In addition to Orbicule’s “Undercover” commercial software ($50), there are publicly available scripts and tools that can do essentially the same thing (call home every 5 minutes, and if from home they find out that they are stolen, automatically snap picture and send it, together with IP, TraceRT, etc. to a pre-defined address). Not one of them ever opens any ports, tunnels or any other means for direct external access to the computer of any kind.

daemon

Some info about what “improper behavior in his home” this child was doing:

He was eating Mike & Ike candies.

On the subject of “the school district only activates cameras of laptops reported stolen inorder to find the theif.” Total lie. This laptop was not reported lost or stolen and they were not trying to locate it, they were using it to spy on this child whom they thought was popping pills.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUfdbDzHPuY&feature=related

Montresor

Well, for anyone still following this thread, it’s starting to look like the reality is worse than anything we could have imagined:

http://strydehax.blogspot.com/2010/02/spy-at-harrington-high.html

All that I can say is, if my daughter were at this school, I’d be having some personal words with members of the administration. I suspect I wouldn’t have been the only father doing so. Does anyone else find it plausible that this Mike Perbix guy would have some buddies over for a few beers, watch a game, then pulls out his laptop and says “Hey dudes, check THIS out…”

geoduck

Holy Crap.
This HAS to be illegal somehow.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Thanks for the link Montresor. Here’s a quote from a student:

“The webcam couldn’t be disabled due through tough tough security settings. Occasionally we would notice that the green light was on from time to time but we just figured that it was glitching out as some macbooks do sometimes. Some few covered it up with tape and post its because they thought the IT guys were watching them. I always thought they were crazy and that the district, one of the more respectable ones within the state, would never pull some shit like this. I guess I was wrong.”

Mike Perbix, the IT guy, should take the quickest exit possible out of the gene pool. And any administrator remotely responsible for the policies such as mandatory laptops and excluding student-owned laptops, should follow him out for making his act possible. They are the worst people in the world, and it’s no surprise they flock to public education.

Confused Reader

Wait, so they did this to “this” student? How many other students have they done this to without anyone reporting it? Have they just been randomly spying on their students? These are students! Some people leave their Macbooks on for long periods of time, even as they’re doing unrelated things! What if one of the students was undressing or doing something private during one of the times they spied on their students????

There’s no justification for this, on top of invasion of privacy violation of rights and wiretapping laws this potentially goes into the areas of child pornography!!!!

This is not acceptable! This is not acceptable at all. Anyone that had access to remotely viewing students through the webcams on their macbooks needs to be subjected to serious and in depth investigations regardless of whether they were responsible for this particular incident or not.

Josh

Hold on everyone…

first of all, if the computer is connected to the internet, and a simple cam program is already installed, it is entirely possible for surveilance to go on. It is not complicated as some have made it seem. No one needs to “hack” anything. There is technology you can donwload for free that does this sort of thing. The only way it could be done without a real “hack” to have to happen, is like I said “a program is pre-installed” allowing for remote surveilance. I have a program on my comupter that activates my cam and records videos silently (does not turn the light on) if there is motion. You can take it one step further and also transmit a live feed as long as you ALREADY have access to the computer remotely. Id doesn’t matter if you are wireless and hardwired into a router or modem. All the intruder needs is for the firewal on the computer to allow entry on a certain port, which then the person uses to get in. It’s easy to set this kind of thing up. The laptops probably have administrative privalliges set on them which are NOT accessable to the students, because only a user with admin privalages can use these features. This keeps the admins in and the students out. they can do this because they provided the laptops and installed whatever softeware they came with.

I wouldn’t put it past some vice principal with her head up her ass to slopilly try to pull something like this off. I’ve known school teachers and principals to be quite arrogant and overly bold in their methods of dealing with kids. They often take things into their own hands, and sometimes they get caught with their pants down. Using a program like this might seem like a good idea to someone who devalues privacy laws and sees no forseeable way to be detected or even accused of it, but their own computer half-illiteracy is their own undoing. Many people know how to use programs on computers but don’t know how those programs work and therefore can’t see the end result of using them the wrong way. I think they vice principal just didn’t expect to get caught because she did what she did carelessly. She should have never brought up this impropper behaviour so as to alert people of the only possible way of her being able to know that, even if not by remote webcam viewing, some form of spying is going on which is still illegal, and then to take it a step further and actually say how it was done, is just plain foolish. Like I said, I wouldn’t put it past some school staff to do something so stupid because half the time they have half the wit of the kids they’re employed to educate, but on the other hand, I find it a bit hard to believe that this is actually the case since if it is true, then huge laws have been broken and some jail time is definitely in order. This is serious issues. It gets right into civil rights.

On the other hand, I’m from canada and I just expect shit like this to no happen, no matter how stupid some people can be because invasion of privacy is one thing most canadians are very confident in not happening. But I"VE HEard stories about the states and some of the types of surveliance that goes on there unchecked. I wouldn’t want to live there actually. I mean, for a teacher to spy on their student is one thing, but when you’ve got groups like homeland security, and sattelites everywhere and laws that are made to use this stuff withotu telling the general public about it, pretty scary, and maybe that’s where some people get their ideas from, that it’s ok to do.

Log-in to comment