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Student observed plagiarizing 1984
February 18, 2010 10:16 AM   Subscribe

A lawsuit alleges that the Lower Merion School District has been spying on students through webcams on school issued laptops. According to the complaint no indication was giving to the parents or students that this activity was possible. The spying program was only revealed when a student was informed by the school that they had witnessed improper behavior through the webcam and saved photographic evidence.
posted by furiousxgeorge (273 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wanted to make this meatier, but every direction I went turned into editorializing, I mean, if you consider WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU THINKING editorializing. I know sometimes this country doesn't believe in privacy for students, but how could anyone think random undisclosed observation of a home is a good idea? You are just as likely to see parents and house guests.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2010


*shudder*

Holy shit, that's so wrong. WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU THINKING, indeed.
posted by Xany at 10:21 AM on February 18, 2010


If true, this is probably a crime in some jurisdictions.
posted by unSane at 10:22 AM on February 18, 2010


Whoa. I just covered up my laptop camera with a piece of tape. Now, they see NOTHING!
posted by madred at 10:22 AM on February 18, 2010


WTF? This must be a frame-up by the scoundrels from Upper Merion district.

If this is true as presented then lawsuit doesn't cover it. Criminal charges should definitely be in play.
posted by Babblesort at 10:23 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


As long as you're not doing anything wrong ...

Well, you're probably wasting your youth and should probably try to be less boring, poindexter.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:25 AM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


I can tell you this much. I am a network administrator at a school very similar to LMSD where this occurred, and as such, have a high degree of expertise for the software they use to manage the laptops in their 1:1 program. I can say with some authority that the software (LANRev) does not have the ability--out of the box--to do this kind of monitoring that is claimed in the lawsuit. Yes, a technician could have written a script or policy to trigger PhotoBooth to take pictures using the webcam on a timed interval, but there is simply no reason to do so. I can't think of a single legitimate and non-nefarious reason for a school district to decide to enable that kind of monitoring. It just doesn't make any sense.

LANRev does have a module called TheftTrack that can be enabled and configured to take photos with the webcam in the case of laptop theft. The Administration in this school district may be referring to that and the parents of this kid and the lawyers are misinterpreting what the software module can and cannot do.

A much more likely scenario is that the kid took a picture of himself with the webcam, doing something stupid/illegal and the school found that picture on the computer's HD and now wants to discipline him for the infraction. And instead of owning up to his misbehavior, he and his parents decide to sue based on a lot of assumptions about what the management software can and cannot do.

Boing Boing (and Cory Doctorow) have a long history of alarmist and sensationalistic journalism. That this story is being popularized there surprises me not at all. There is more to this story that we're not being told, as is so often the case with sensationalistic news stories. I, for one, would love to be in the courtroom during a trial for this case to watch the technical experts pick apart the allegations made in this lawsuit. There are just too many holes and assumptions being made about LANRev, the school district, and its monitoring policies (if these even exist).
posted by mrbarrett.com at 10:25 AM on February 18, 2010 [56 favorites]


FTA:

The school district’s conduct, the plaintiffs allege, runs afoul of not only the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, but also a laundry list of federal and state laws intended to protect the privacy of people and stored information alike. This includes the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, §1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law as well.

posted by furiousxgeorge at 10:25 AM on February 18, 2010


I'd like to know what this 'behavior' was.

Also, high school sysadmins can be such utter petty tyrants.
I remember visiting a high school to check out their Linux deployment back in 2003. Their computer guy looked like Comic Book Guy if he really let himself go, and he kept on regaling us with stories about searching net logs for searches for things like "Sex", doing some "detective work" and then "making sure those kids didn't get to use a computer for a long, long time!". It was almost as if the guy was getting off on it.

Did they record the video, or was it just a live feed? What if kids are naked when they're using their laptops? Would this 'zero tolerance for child porn' extend to school officials?
posted by dunkadunc at 10:26 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Are there laptops out there that don't have some sort of visual indication (an LED, etc.) when the webcam is activated? I've only used webcams on Apple laptops, which have a small indicator LED that illuminates when the camera is on. Presumably, this is a hardwired behavior. It certainly seems that design policy should be to have a visual indicator hardwired to the webcam, just to prevent this kind of thing.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:28 AM on February 18, 2010


...there goes the grant for my clandestinely OLPC-based documentary of the third world reflected in the eyes of a child.
posted by griphus at 10:28 AM on February 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


mrbarrett.com:

The complaint states that the school district confirmed that they have the ability to monitor the webcam whenever they want. Of course we will have to wait and see what they have to say about that, there HAS to be more to this story. I know school administrators can be massively stupid but this is way beyond the usual.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 10:29 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't be so quick to dismiss the school administration's reasons for surreptitiously and arbitrarily recording minors in various stages of undress. There could have been a good reason for doing so, like... um... hold on, let me think. Okay, I've got one. You have to admit that based on what little we know of the universe, there's technically a non-zero chance that space aliens contacted the school board and said they would destroy our planet if they didn't spy on the students.
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 10:30 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Would this 'zero tolerance for child porn' extend to school officials?

If the photos/videos are still located on the kids' laptops, there's a good chance they would get charged for child porn.
posted by graventy at 10:30 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also: please, please, please let the allegations be true. We need some punches thrown for privacy.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:31 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I can only quote Pauline Kael's capsule review of Frederick Wiseman's documentary High School from 5001 Nights at the Movies:

How did we live through it? How did we keep any spirit?
posted by Joe Beese at 10:31 AM on February 18, 2010


Unless its like one of mrbarrett.com suggestions, and some idjit saved photo evidence of something stupid they did, can the school board be arraigned for peeping? Because that would be hilarious.

Something like illegal surveillance, otherwise. 'Specially if they did have to write up something special to enable the remote view.
posted by LD Feral at 10:32 AM on February 18, 2010


Yeah, I'm suspicious of this as well... I think mrbarrett.com is on track with this.....

Mr. Roboto, my macbook has a built in camera, there is NO indication that it is recording.
posted by HuronBob at 10:33 AM on February 18, 2010


The spying program was only revealed when a student was informed by the school that they had witnessed improper behavior through the webcam and saved photographic evidence.

Story from a friend who worked there at the time: once upon a time at CLTV (when it was just a cable station, and brand new at that) most of the passwords on the user accounts were set to "password" by default, and most people didn't bother to change them. As a result, people regularly checked each other's mailboxes, and occasionally sent emails from other people's accounts. It wasn't talked about, and the upper echelons presumably didn't know about it.

Then one day a person working there, who was up for a promotion, looked at her boss's email account and saw that another employee had sent the boss an email that was less than flattering to this person (and so likely to jeopardize her promotion opportunity.) In a huff, she went barging into her boss's office and demanded to know why he didn't defend her, is he going to let it impact her promotion, will she have a chance to defend herself, and so on.

The boss waited for the outburst to end, and then calmly asked her how she knew the email existed in the first place. Oops.

The fallout, ultimately, was the firing of everyone they could prove sent an email from someone else's account (the only paper trail that existed), determined by matching up keycard entry records against machine login/email sending records. That was only three people, in addition to the woman who inadvertently kicked the whole manhunt off.
posted by davejay at 10:36 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this. I was ready to post, but I'm on 24 hour window timeout. Anyway, I live in this county (it's a big county) and this is a pretty well-to-do district on the Main Line. I love their smugness, 'we're so great, we give every kid a laptop.' There has been zero play in our local media (I know it just happened) but this is a huge mess for LMSD. I hope they are prosecuted for child porn charges if they've got any naked kids on webcam. And, hey, Joe Beese? I went to Northeast High School, the one in Frederick Wiseman's documentary.
posted by fixedgear at 10:36 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


The complaint states that the school district confirmed that they have the ability to monitor the webcam whenever they want. Of course we will have to wait and see what they have to say about that, there HAS to be more to this story. I know school administrators can be massively stupid but this is way beyond the usual.

I read the complaint. And the language in it is sufficiently gray enough to be open for interpretation. Just because one VP at the school says LMSD has the ability to monitor the way the lawsuit alleges, does not make it a true statement. A more accurate statement needs to come from the school's Directory of Technology. I know many school VP's who can barely use email, let alone understand the complex nature of how software like LANRev or Casper functions and which abilities they can/cannot do.

We agree that there has to be more to this story. I see giant holes and missing information. That irresponsible people like Doctorow and Boing Boing are inflating this story to the national media is disappointing. I thought they'd know better. It's not like they're a bunch of Digg readers.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 10:37 AM on February 18, 2010


If this is true as presented then lawsuit doesn't cover it. Criminal charges should definitely be in play.
The school district’s conduct, the plaintiffs allege, runs afoul of not only the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, but also a laundry list of federal and state laws intended to protect the privacy of people and stored information alike. This includes the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, §1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law as well.
this illustrates two interesting things to me:

1) difference between rich school districts and poor school districts: rich kids get lawyered up.

2) how the addition of technology transforms a straightforward authoritarian government i.e. principal = dear leader, into a totalitarian one. authoritarian governments operate on the instinct on unchecked power but are practically constrained i.e. the only reason your principal doesn't spy on you in your bedroom is that it was previously impractical, but theoretically he/she sees it as part of his/her position of authority. in short, you can't have auschwitz without the 'computerized' punch-card database.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:37 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I can very easily see how this is a case of the capabilities of the hardware/software get lost in a game of broken telephone between IT/Tech and the district's PR. Especially when the district realizes if they don't fess up to something, they'll dig themselves in deeper.
posted by griphus at 10:38 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Seriously, it is the responsibility of the parents to discipline children in their homes.

A read through of the complaint is pretty solid.

Let me add that a law firm isn't going to take on a class action on a contingency basis unless the case is pretty solid.

I think this will stand up and this school district would be really smart to offer a huge settlement to this one plaintiff on the side before class certification occurs. They are gonna get slaughtered.

$10 says the kid was looking at porn.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:38 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


the school district confirmed that they have the ability to monitor the webcam whenever they want.

If true and uncontested, this is going to be really, really interesting.
posted by davejay at 10:39 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, a technician could have written a script or policy to trigger PhotoBooth to take pictures using the webcam on a timed interval, but there is simply no reason to do so. I can't think of a single legitimate and non-nefarious reason for a school district to decide to enable that kind of monitoring. It just doesn't make any sense.[snip]

RTFComplaint:

Michael Robbins [father of plaintiff] thereafter verified, through Ms. Matsko [Assistant Principal] that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a student's 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 perrsons then and there using the laptop computer.

Yes, this is just the complaint, and surely the facts will be contested, but I think it's pretty clear what they're alleging.
posted by jckll at 10:40 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


$10 says the kid was looking at porn.

$10 says the kid was smoking a joint.
posted by davejay at 10:40 AM on February 18, 2010 [10 favorites]


Let me add that a law firm isn't going to take on a class action on a contingency basis unless the case is pretty solid.

Oh please...as if to say all class actions taken on contingency are settled or decided for the plaintiff...
posted by jckll at 10:41 AM on February 18, 2010


I can say with some authority that the software (LANRev) does not have the ability--out of the box--to do this kind of monitoring that is claimed in the lawsuit.

Isn't it basically a remote desktop program, so that if a student had been using their webcam, the operator would see (and be able to take a screenshot of) whatever the student saw? Is it possible that this was monitoring without surreptitious activation of the webcam?
posted by mr_roboto at 10:42 AM on February 18, 2010



Let me add that a law firm isn't going to take on a class action on a contingency basis unless the case is pretty solid.


This case is going to have sympathetic national media attention though, might be worth it just for the PR.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 10:42 AM on February 18, 2010


Yes, a technician could have written a script or policy to trigger PhotoBooth to take pictures using the webcam on a timed interval, but there is simply no reason to do so.

You know, the scenario you laid out about the student taking the picture seemed plausible but the above reasoning is just...awful. "B..b..b..ut The Authorities would never ever ever no never do anything bad so it can't have happened like that!"
posted by DU at 10:42 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've always been creeped out by laptops that have a webcam pointed at the user at all times, because it's relatively easy to write code to silently capture images or video from one. The average computer user isn't exactly vigilant about making sure the kinds of applications or other content that can get access to their webcam (such as Flash) are not going to things they don't want them to do, so it seems dangerous on a privacy level to make it so easy for malicious uses.

And it's not as if this is a new issue, either, backdoor programs like Sub7 have had the ability to capture webcam images silently on infected machines for 10+ years. Personally I think it would make sense for webcams to have a physical on/off switch and an indicator that shows whether or not they are enabled or capturing images.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:43 AM on February 18, 2010


Let's say mrbarrett.com is correct (or close to correct) and the school disciplined the kid for something that the kid recorded on his webcam...

I still think there is a big problem with a school disciplining a kid for behavior that occurs off school property. If the kid broke the Acceptable Use Policy (they have an Acceptable Use Policy, right?), then whatever disciplinary actions taken in that vein (removing non-supervised school computer use, for example) is appropriate, but beyond that it is the parent's job. Notify and CYA.
posted by muddgirl at 10:44 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


$10 says the kid was smoking a joint while looking at porn.
posted by fixedgear at 10:44 AM on February 18, 2010 [8 favorites]


I read the complaint. And the language in it is sufficiently gray enough to be open for interpretation.

Its called notice pleading. You aren't going to throw everything in there in a class action, and give them the advantage of what you know. Let me reiterate that no firm is going to take on the sheer administrative and legal hell of a class-action lawsuit unless they are pretty damn sure they have a chance to win. Class certification litigation is like pulling teeth. I'd never do it. And I love litigation. You bet they have plenty if they are filing this. I suspect there's several dozen hours of attorney time in this complaint and the discussions with the plaintiffs that led up to it. Multiply by $400.00 an hour and you see that nobody just donates that time without the thought that they are going to get a major payoff. The complaint appears, on first glance, to be well-pled.

Seriously, if there is a letter from the school saying the kid did wrong at home and they have the photos to prove it from the laptop, they are fucked. For realz. The paper trail is a problem. Interesting to see if the woman who sent the letter is suspended soon.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:45 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


The news source is a right-wing joint, with links to folks like Ace of Spades, Atlas Shrugs, and Michelle Malkin.

That does not, of course, mean that this story can't be true. But these are the folks who think that ACORN stole the election for Obama and that climate change isn't real because of a word taken out of context in a stolen email. And there's reporting to back it up in both cases!

I admit that my bias is to hope this isn't true, because of the terrible invasion of privacy involved, and because it's a real bummer for children and America and all that if school administrators are that malevolent and incompetent.
posted by ibmcginty at 10:45 AM on February 18, 2010


Actually, reading the complaint, it doesn't look like the student was disciplined for whatever was in the contents of that photograph, and the district was merely informing the parents. My objection still stands, but in this case it doesn't seem like that's what happened.
posted by muddgirl at 10:47 AM on February 18, 2010


Seriously, it is the responsibility of the parents to discipline children in their homes.

But that's not even the issue! You can't just spy on kids in school. You can't implement a policy of covertly monitoring people, regardless of their age, with no one being informed about even the possibility of them being brought up for disciplinary action as a result of the covert surveillance.

I hope mrbarrett.com is right and the software can't really do this. I also hope that, no matter what the kid was looking at, the parents win this lawsuit, and it brings about changes about kids' right to privacy in school. I don't want a huge monetary payout (because when the school pays out, everyone who is paying taxes is basically giving the parents the money), but this whole power trip the admin is on in this school is just wrong, wrong, wrong.
posted by misha at 10:47 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


$10 says the kid was looking at porn.

$20 says the photo is really embarrassing.
posted by three blind mice at 10:48 AM on February 18, 2010


ibmcginty:

I just went with that link because someone sent it to me. You can pick and choose a publication from Google News. It's all over the media.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 10:48 AM on February 18, 2010


Let me add that a law firm isn't going to take on a class action on a contingency basis unless the case is pretty solid.

This case is going to have sympathetic national media attention though, might be worth it just for the PR.


This lawyer has never heard of taking on a case "just for the PR." Class-action lawyers are in it for serious cash. Some bill $1,200 an hour. We are talking $30, $40, $50 mil for these lawyers here, depending on the size of the class. That's why you see lawyers taking on cases where each individual receives a $40 coupon in settlement. They get a huge chunk of that multiplied by the millions in the class.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:49 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


$10 says the kid was looking at porn.

$10 says the kid was smoking a joint.

$10 says the kid was smoking a joint while looking at porn.


$50 says he was re-enacting the underpants scene from Risky Business.

Just take those old records off the shelf...
posted by griphus at 10:49 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I admit that my bias is to hope this isn't true, because of the terrible invasion of privacy involved, and because it's a real bummer for children and America and all that if school administrators are that malevolent and incompetent.

but practically any outrage seems plausible since anyone who has spent time in a U.S. public school knows that, practically as a rule, school administrators are malevolent and incompetent... at least in a banality of evil sort of way.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:50 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


The news source is a right-wing joint, with links to folks like Ace of Spades, Atlas Shrugs, and Michelle Malkin.

That does not, of course, mean that this story can't be true. But these are the folks who think that ACORN stole the election for Obama and that climate change isn't real because of a word taken out of context in a stolen email. And there's reporting to back it up in both cases!


These people filed a well-pled complaint in federal district court. This is a 16 person firm in Bucks County. They aren't amateurs. You don't see this type of filing unless it is damn serious.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:52 AM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Boing Boing (and Cory Doctorow) have a long history of alarmist and sensationalistic journalism.

That is very true. It is also true that schools can administer drug tests to students and search their lockers. So something like this is not outside the realm of possibility.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:55 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


You don't see this type of filing unless it is damn serious.

Or unless a high-powered law firm in a rich county takes the district's tech-ignorant PR wing's "confession" for granted without running it through any tech channels first.
posted by griphus at 10:55 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


$20 says the photo is really embarrassing.

$30 says someone is getting a blow job.

(Not that a blow job was recorded by a webcam. Or that it was a kid from this school getting one. But someone, somewhere must be getting a blowjob. I'll lay $30 it!.)
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:58 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I find it so hard to believe that one of the nerd kids didn't find that process running on the laptop.

That said, once discovered... The FUN you could have... Fake murders, fake terrorist training, fake spousal abuse... Point the webcam at HBO, then tell HBO that they're infringing on their copyright... Or the NFL...

Make the school regret thinking this was ever okay to do.
posted by CarlRossi at 10:58 AM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


We can turn it off. We have that privilege.
posted by jefficator at 11:00 AM on February 18, 2010


I just went with that link because someone sent it to me. You can pick and choose a publication from Google News. It's all over the media.

My mistake, furiousxgeorge. I misread or misunderstood the 3rd and 4th comments in the thread from the original article.

Ugh. What astonishing lack of judgment this would be. I sure hope it isn't true.
posted by ibmcginty at 11:01 AM on February 18, 2010


You don't see this type of filing unless it is damn serious.

Or unless a high-powered law firm in a rich county takes the district's tech-ignorant PR wing's "confession" for granted without running it through any tech channels first.


It was the Assistant Principal who let them know. The same woman who provided photographs. Read the complaint, paragraph 23. They have photos from the webcam. I don't see how you can argue that they can't do this. There will be a paper trail you can't destroy without sanctions. These guys are likely fucked.

The people who need to worry are the School Board members, who will be voted out en masse unless they come up with a good explanation.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:02 AM on February 18, 2010


if this is true then about all i can say is Jesus H Christ, wtf? as IANAL. troubled that it is from Doctorow, who rails against censorship and yet censors BoingBoing.

but still, as mentioned above, if they have a letter from the school...
posted by marienbad at 11:02 AM on February 18, 2010


Boing Boing (and Cory Doctorow) have a long history of alarmist and sensationalistic journalism. That this story is being popularized there surprises me not at all.

Take a look at Google News and you'll see plenty of mainstream news coverage.

-----

But I don't really understand what all the fuss is about. The administrators only had the best interests of the students in mind. This isn't conjecture, we know it. After all they themselves came forward and disclosed this capability. Just think, these web cameras could have captured evidence of child abuse, even sex abuse! If we could save just one child wouldn't it be worth this small loss of "privacy"? Are we so selfish to cling to our privacy when we could possibly be rescuing some of our most miserably treated children?

After all, if we can't trust some low-level government bureaucrat, who can we trust?
posted by BigSky at 11:02 AM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Assuming there is any truth to this as it has been presented, the moment someone points out out at this would allow school officials to potentially view underage kids in "various stages of undress" as "Elbows" O'Donoghue put it, people will stop viewing it as a privacy thing and start thinking of it as a child-predator moment.

And everyone even tangentially involved with having this implemented will be publicly eviscerated both professionally and legally.
posted by quin at 11:05 AM on February 18, 2010


ennui.bz: "2) how the addition of technology transforms a straightforward authoritarian government i.e. principal = dear leader, into a totalitarian one. authoritarian governments operate on the instinct on unchecked power but are practically constrained i.e. the only reason your principal doesn't spy on you in your bedroom is that it was previously impractical, but theoretically he/she sees it as part of his/her position of authority. in short, you can't have auschwitz without the 'computerized' punch-card database."

The Congo shows this quite well with their advanced Genocide Tabulator Computer 2000. Each side has it, in fact. It's how they keep score to know who's winning.

Also?

Panopticon, anyone? This sounds right up the UK's alley, actually!
posted by symbioid at 11:05 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


It was the Assistant Principal who let them know.

Unless I am missing something, it only states that the photograph was taken via the camera and that she was in the possession of the photo, not the mode of transfer. It also says that the Assistant Principal informed them of the laptop's capabilities. The AP is not an individual I would trust on these matters not in re: lying but in re: getting the facts right when her ass is on the line.
posted by griphus at 11:07 AM on February 18, 2010


You don't see this type of filing unless it is damn serious.

The allegation certainly is serious, but the complaint looks like it was written by an amateur. It provides no details about the monitoring software, only a statement by some school official at paragraph 24 saying that some sort of remote monitoring is possible. That's it. Hearsay.

Certainly the laptop could have been examined by an expert to see what was loaded on it. Why didn't the plaintiff's attorneys bother doing this? It would be a trivial exercise.

Discovery isn't supposed to be a fishing expedition, but it seems that's what plaintiff's attorneys are doing.
posted by three blind mice at 11:11 AM on February 18, 2010


It was the Assistant Principal who let them know.

Unless I am missing something, it only states that the photograph was taken via the camera and that she was in the possession of the photo, not the mode of transfer. It also says that the Assistant Principal informed them of the laptop's capabilities. The AP is not an individual I would trust on these matters not in re: lying but in re: getting the facts right when her ass is on the line.


This doesn't make any sense at all. The family was at home, they got a letter, saying that the child was doing wrong at home and that they had photographic evidence from the home. How exactly does the school know about alleged misconduct at home without this camera working? There is no logic here. The only way the school could know is if the laptop could be activated in such a way.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:14 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


The AP is not an individual I would trust on these matters not in re: lying but in re: getting the facts right when her ass is on the line.

Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if, say, the school district could access the contents of the hard drive remotely. Or if the students were connection to the school network remotely with VPN or some such and thus activity and traffic could well be monitored.
posted by muddgirl at 11:14 AM on February 18, 2010


How exactly does the school know about alleged misconduct at home without this camera working

As we said above - the student took the picture themselves or otherwise activated the camera accidentally, and the school accessed the photo on the student's hard drive, or through some web-based photo service.
posted by muddgirl at 11:15 AM on February 18, 2010


The allegation certainly is serious, but the complaint looks like it was written by an amateur. It provides no details about the monitoring software, only a statement by some school official at paragraph 24 saying that some sort of remote monitoring is possible. That's it. Hearsay.

Ever drafted a complaint for federal court? I have. Its called notice pleading. Hearsay means nothing here because the complaint is not evidence. This is literally Civ Pro first year stuff.

The complaint appears very well pled to me and I'm a litigator who drafts complaints quite often.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:16 AM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Via ArsTechnica
As a recent graduate of Harriton, I thought I could shed some light on the situation. These laptops were 2.0ghz 2gb Macbooks issued out to all the students for the entire year to do whatever they wanted and this was the 2nd year of the program. 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 ***** like this. I guess I was wrong. I am a little surprised because nobody in the past had be disciplined for doing anything inappropriate during school or outside of school. The only thing coming close was a kid performing a simple hack to make another account in order to install games. This specific incident was traced through the network by the IT dept. While I still think there might be a chance the vice principal/ disciplinarian doesn't have these specific images as she is quite the type to make a bluff like that, it sounds to me like this is legit. If they have been watching all of us and looking at our logs and looking at what we type, I can assure you that they have seen lots and lots and lots of dirty things.
posted by fixedgear at 11:16 AM on February 18, 2010 [11 favorites]


How exactly does the school know about alleged misconduct at home without this camera working?

Kid snaps a picture of himself while the camera is set up to drop photos into a directory the school can monitor. Like a folder syncing to DropBox for instance. They can monitor what you do with the camera, but they can't set it off on their own.
posted by griphus at 11:17 AM on February 18, 2010


Philly.com article also says: Doug Young, spokesman for the Lower Merion School District, said all 2,290 high school students in the district had been issued Apple laptops.
posted by fixedgear at 11:23 AM on February 18, 2010


How exactly does the school know about alleged misconduct at home without this camera working? There is no logic here. The only way the school could know is if the laptop could be activated in such a way.

To repeat what another skeptic said upthread: that is not the only way.

A much more plausible scenario is that the student recorded pictures or video with the laptop at home, and that someone at the school then found them on the laptop when it was next connected to their LAN. In other words, yes the camera has to be working, but no, there doesn't have to be any remote activation or monitoring.

I still find that objectionable, mind.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:24 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


My work laptop has a camera built in above the screen. One of the first things I did was cut a piece of sticky-note and cover the lens. I have to use web-based shared control of my computer to work with some of our software vendors and I don't know all the capabilities of the software I'm forced to run on my laptop to do so.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 11:24 AM on February 18, 2010


Discovery isn't supposed to be a fishing expedition, but it seems that's what plaintiff's attorneys are doing.

There's no discovery yet. We haven't seen the discovery requests. So how can one say that they are engaging in a fishing expedition? I can think of a million discovery requests that would be relevant here.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:24 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Doug Young, spokesman for the Lower Merion School District, said all 2,290 high school students in the district had been issued Apple laptops.

"This is the first we have heard of this lawsuit being filed and the plaintiff's allegations," he said today. "However, we can categorically state that we are - and have always been - committed to protecting the privacy of our students."

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

"We have referred this matter to our attorneys for appropriate legal action and plan to communicate with parents and students with more information as it becomes available."


Not an ounce of denial in this statement. None. You'd think if they weren't doing this, they'd just deny it categorically. But they aren't.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:26 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ceiling cat Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko is watching you masturbate!
posted by ericb at 11:27 AM on February 18, 2010 [13 favorites]


If the laptops were macbooks it is fairly trivial to capture images remotely.
posted by unSane at 11:30 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


You'd think if they weren't doing this, they'd just deny it categorically. But they aren't.

I noticed that too. As someone who does IT stuff for a broke-ass vocational high school and knows what a clown show a lot of our technology is, I'm really interested to see how this all shakes out. My best guess it's some IT guy's "good idea" that was supposed to serve one purpose and got totally abused by people who failed to grok just how completely and totally illegal this is. And a lot of people in-between who didn't understand it at all.
posted by jessamyn at 11:33 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Another question: what the hell were the chances they caught one kid out of 2,290 doing something illicit? Who is monitoring 2,290 different streams?

I still think the kid made the footage himself; otherwise, these are high school kids. Half of them can't be awake for two minutes without doing something school officials would find objectionable.
posted by griphus at 11:33 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm... going to go home and put tape over my webcam now. Yikes!
posted by marginaliana at 11:34 AM on February 18, 2010


My best guess it's some IT guy's "good idea" that was supposed to serve one purpose and got totally abused by people who failed to grok just how completely and totally illegal this is.

I can totally see this. The IT guy comes in and tells the principal he can do this and the principal is all like "great!"
posted by Ironmouth at 11:35 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


If these allegations are true there are just so many criminal laws potentially broken here.
posted by caddis at 11:40 AM on February 18, 2010


The capability exists to record, and maybe somebody recorded something on their own and dropped it into a folder that prompted an admin check, as somebody said above. If you think about the forethought and configuration that had to be in place to conduct the kind of "spying" these stories imply -- it's inconceivable that the school set that up. Just inconceivable for a thousand reasons. And even a rogue, pervy IT guy isn't going to blow his own cover by turning images over to district administrators. I think there's less here than meets the eye.

and btw, this is where Kobe Bryant went to school. Very fancy schmancy Philly suburb, which is going to goose the media coverage bigtime.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:42 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, a good reason for the lack of a complete denial of the allegation is the ability to potentially do what they are accused of even if they did not do it actively in this case. A vague non-denial is better "yeah we could spy on your kids but we didn't actually do it this time."
posted by griphus at 11:45 AM on February 18, 2010


My best guess it's some IT guy's "good idea" that was supposed to serve one purpose and got totally abused by people who failed to grok just how completely and totally illegal this is.

As an IT guy with ethics, were I put that kind of situation, I'd quit before doing so and document the exchange to cover my ass. It's not like the clueless Administrator would be able to write the scripts or code necessary to do this. I think it's been shown in many places that while there exists the ability to do this kind of monitoring, it's not point-and-click. The IT staff would have to have known about it and implemented it. [For instance, it would not be overly difficult to write a script that takes photos using the iSight webcam and saves them to a hidden directory on the laptop somewhere; and then a cron job that executes another script to upload said files to an FTP directory at the school]. But this all requires technical experience and nefarious intent. And I personally just don't find it that plausible a scenario.

I hope I'm correct, for everyone's sake, that this is just some kind trying to squeeze and lie his way out of some discipline and that it's really more a case of technical miscomprehension than it is a case about nefarious Orwellian intent. I'll be watching this case closely, if only to help my own workplace deal with overreactions from our own parent body misunderstanding how our own 1:1 Laptop program works. Sometimes hysteria is a difficult force to counter.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 11:46 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hope I'm correct, for everyone's sake, that this is just some kind trying to squeeze and lie his way out of some discipline and that it's really more a case of technical miscomprehension than it is a case about nefarious Orwellian intent.

The father called the school. The Vice Principal made the statements regarding the capability directly to the father, not to the kid. So this isn't the kid trying to lie his way out of it.

You don't waste $14,000.00 on attorney time for this. You just don't.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:53 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


If the photos/videos are still located on the kids' laptops, there's a good chance they would get charged for child porn.

But the irony would be that they'd be charged as adults.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:55 AM on February 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Frontline/WGBH ran a show about Digital Natives earlier this month. You can view the whole thing here.

At about 6:30 of the fourth section (Teaching with Technology), you see the assistant principal using a remote desktop viewer (and remote control) to take over a student's laptop... and take a picture of her doing her hair (she was using photobooth like a mirror). He did it using her photobooth (i.e. the pic was stored on her machine, and she got a 3...2...1... countdown on the screen), but he could just have easily taken a screenshot of his own screen (which was displaying her's), without her being any the wiser.

The big difference here... the students at the school on Frontline seemed to know that the principal periodically looks over their shoulder. The parents and students in Pennsylvania claim not to have known.

I'm a little surprised to see all of these mefites in disbelief about the feasibility of remotely activating a laptop's camera, though. Of course it's possible -- modern machines can be controlled 100% remotely, if they are set up to be. A laptop loaned to a student by a school is set up for this before the student touches it, and it's even more locked-down than you'd see in a corporate environment.

Of course the people who run the school network and maintain those laptops will be able to remotely control a machine (or mirror its screen). Of course they'll be able to log in to the machine, with privileges much higher than the student has, and could activate the camera without the student knowing it. Anybody with admin access on a Mac can do this, even from a comand line. The school administrators have admin access. The students don't.

Should they be taking pictures (or even looking at the kids' screens) when a student is at home? Of course not. But nobody has (yet) told them that they can't.
posted by toxic at 11:57 AM on February 18, 2010 [10 favorites]


So here's the thing I don't understand. If I misuse my corporate laptop/pc, even on my own time, they can fire me. If they discover I've stored inappropriate content on their machines, they can fire me. Why doesn't this apply to the students? It's a school pc/laptop, and I'm sure the agreement says it's for school use only.

Obviously, turning on the webcam and spying on the student is a violation and shouldn't be permitted. But if it turns out that mrbarrett's correct, and the laptop's logs or hd had the data and it was captured through the actions of the student, how is this an issue?
posted by Crash at 11:59 AM on February 18, 2010


The father called the school. The Vice Principal made the statements regarding the capability directly to the father, not to the kid. So this isn't the kid trying to lie his way out of it.

You don't waste $14,000.00 on attorney time for this. You just don't.


It is much, much more likely the Vice Principal doesn't know a damn thing about the technology. I have never met a Vice Principal who has. It is not their area of expertise. Or whatever she does know, she is mis-parroting from what the individuals who do know told her. "Technical miscomprehension," like mrbarrett.com says.

And you'd be very surprised at the amounts of money wealthy people would spend to get their kids out of shit. $14,000.00 is, what, 2/3rds of a semester at a Good Universtiy they won't be able to go to if the hammer comes down?
posted by griphus at 12:01 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


So here's the thing I don't understand. If I misuse my corporate laptop/pc, even on my own time, they can fire me. If they discover I've stored inappropriate content on their machines, they can fire me. Why doesn't this apply to the students? It's a school pc/laptop, and I'm sure the agreement says it's for school use only.

Why don't they fire the children from school? How does this even make sense? They're compelled by the force of law to attend; they're not employees. Also, they're children.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:03 PM on February 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


You don't waste $14,000.00 on attorney time for this. You just don't.

While you and I wouldn't, I've met many people who would. Especially if they were led to believe that it could result in a big payoff. Combine the arrogance that accompanies wealth and prestige with ignorance about technology, add a splash of boogeyman, and I can totally see an upper class parent(s) paying his lawyers to write this kind of allegation.

I know you see differently and respect your legal opinion. However, I live and work in a district very similar to LMSD and have prodigious experience with this particular socio-economic class stratus. $14,000 is a month's property tax bill for many of these people and not very much money to lose in a gamble.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 12:03 PM on February 18, 2010


As an IT guy with ethics, were I put that kind of situation

Yeah I didn't mean to be all "IT guys would totally do this...." about it. The way things work at my school is that I do the basic "help me get my email working" stuff a few hours a week. There is also a private company who does the overall network admin stuff. The company are a bunch of nice guys, but their concern is doing what people tell them to do and problem solving and they let the school take care of the details. Except that the school often doesn't understand the details and just needs technological solutions and the IT company doesn't always bother with details.

So we have a classroom that is all Macs [most of the school is PCs] where all the desktops can be remotely monitored by the teacher, this is basically normal in a high school. It's a small hop to "make sure we can do this with laptops" and then to "make sure we can do this when a student is using a laptop from home" to "make sure we have admin privileges on the student laptops" etc. All the "My Documents" type folders back up to a school network drive whenever the computers are online.

I mean it really seems like this is an affluent technologically savvy school which is what makes this all the more unnerving. But I can easily see how this could happen at a less-savvy school almost by accident. I'm dying to know the details of this now.
posted by jessamyn at 12:05 PM on February 18, 2010


I think about the kid I was when I was sixteen. You know, when I was sixteen, I used to BBS (the 80's equivalent of web surfing) topless or nearly so on a regular basis. I wasn't doing anything inappropriate. I just didn't have air conditioning in my home and the only windows in my room were impossible to peep through. The kid I was at sixteen probably would have a field day charging the school with trafficking in child pornography. (And then put tape over the camera, because, ew!) If receiving a text with a picture in it is a chargeable offense, then what must be the offense of collecting such images on a school network...
posted by Karmakaze at 12:07 PM on February 18, 2010


While you and I wouldn't, I've met many people who would. Especially if they were led to believe that it could result in a big payoff

Except that the attorney is required to inform his or her client that it is unlikely to succeed and cannot by ethics rules bring a useless suit. This means your Orly Taitz's can file crap pro se, but they are going to lose their license.

A firm like this isn't going to do that. It doesn't make sense. I do this for a living and I would be shocked here. Especially the move for class certification.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:10 PM on February 18, 2010


It is much, much more likely the Vice Principal doesn't know a damn thing about the technology. I have never met a Vice Principal who has. It is not their area of expertise. Or whatever she does know, she is mis-parroting from what the individuals who do know told her. "Technical miscomprehension," like mrbarrett.com says.

But how do they know about the misconduct at home? Doesn't make sense. And why would you be so stupid as to say you have photos? Because any parent is gonna ask to see them.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:12 PM on February 18, 2010


mr_roboto, I just mean the laptop is given to the student exclusively for school related work. Even trivially misuses like facebooking, family members using it to watch netflix, etc..., violates that and could result in discipline to the student. Basically, If it's a school laptop, it's the same as a school desktop PC in the library, they just allow you to take it home for added convenience. If the school says you can't use it for anything but writing research papers and you choose to go surf for porn on it, don't be surprised when you're disciplined for it.

Like I said, recording pics/videos from the webcam is an issue and should result in legal & criminal charges. But if the student used the laptop inappropriately and recorded it the data himself, only to have it discovered later by administrators, I don't think the school is in the wrong.
posted by Crash at 12:14 PM on February 18, 2010


Except that the attorney is required to inform his or her client that it is unlikely to succeed and cannot by ethics rules bring a useless suit.

This implies that the lawyers have a greater understanding of the technical angle than they got from the VP. Considering the loose language and complete lack of a transfer mechanism in the compliant, I doubt the lawyers are particularly clear on the details. Especially when someone with relative authority has already "confessed."
posted by griphus at 12:14 PM on February 18, 2010


But how do they know about the misconduct at home? Doesn't make sense. And why would you be so stupid as to say you have photos? Because any parent is gonna ask to see them.

They know about the misconduct at home because the photo was taken at home and then synced to a central location either immediately or when the computer was put on the LAN when the kid came back to school. You (the VP) say you have the photos because there exists a trail of you having photos - a log stating that DSC_0001.JPG was moved from COMPUTER_123 to CENTRAL_LOCATION. And I don't see how the parent asking to see them is applicable. They're not arguing the kid didn't do anything wrong, they're arguing that the evidence was illegally obtained.
posted by griphus at 12:17 PM on February 18, 2010


To be clear, I'm not skeptical that it's technically possible. I'm just skeptical that remote monitoring at home is done.

If nothing else, as a tool to ensure conformity, the best policy is to tell people they are monitored -- then you don't even have to check the footage, they'll control their own behaviour.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:19 PM on February 18, 2010


mrbarrett.com - while I agree and applaud you for being an "IT guy with ethics", in my experience for every one of you, there are two or three polar opposites.
posted by june made him a gemini at 12:20 PM on February 18, 2010


Well, not polar, but there are a lot of very curious types in this field that know what they can get away with. I'm sure you've experienced it first hand as well.
posted by june made him a gemini at 12:22 PM on February 18, 2010


...high school sysadmins can be such utter petty tyrants. I remember visiting a high school to check out their Linux deployment back in 2003. Their computer guy looked like Comic Book Guy if he really let himself go...
How is his appearance relevant, again?

I've always been creeped out by laptops that have a webcam pointed at the user at all times, because it's relatively easy to write code to silently capture images or video from one...Personally I think it would make sense for webcams to have a physical on/off switch and an indicator that shows whether or not they are enabled or capturing images.
It's stupidly easy (and 100% effective) to put a piece of tape over the camera, and trivial to disable it a hundred other ways. (An indicator could also be easily disabled, btw.)
posted by coolguymichael at 12:29 PM on February 18, 2010


"I'm a little surprised to see all of these mefites in disbelief about the feasibility of remotely activating a laptop's camera, though. Of course it's possible -- modern machines can be controlled 100% remotely, if they are set up to be. A laptop loaned to a student by a school is set up for this before the student touches it, and it's even more locked-down than you'd see in a corporate environment. "

It is 100% absosmurfly possible to do this with any kind of mass distributed laptop. The administrators are going to have superuser/admin access to your machine; they can invoke that access remotely; and once they do it's like physically sitting at the machine. If an admin user can start the cam while they are sitting in front of the machine then of course they can do it while it's connected to a public network. I'm very surprised that anyone here is shocked that it's possible.

Windows supports this behaviour right out of the box without installing any additional programs and has since at least NT4 (I think; you may have had to install net meeting separately on NT4 out of the resource kit. At any rate it was free from Microsoft).
posted by Mitheral at 12:30 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


"mr_roboto, I just mean the laptop is given to the student exclusively for school related work."

The recent graduate quoted above says, "These laptops were 2.0ghz 2gb Macbooks issued out to all the students for the entire year to do whatever they wanted..."
posted by soelo at 12:31 PM on February 18, 2010


Except that the attorney is required to inform his or her client that it is unlikely to succeed and cannot by ethics rules bring a useless suit.

This implies that the lawyers have a greater understanding of the technical angle than they got from the VP. Considering the loose language and complete lack of a transfer mechanism in the compliant, I doubt the lawyers are particularly clear on the details. Especially when someone with relative authority has already "confessed."


You don't just launch a lawsuit like this without actually consulting an IT guy. As I've said over and over again, its notice pleading, which means you put very little specifics in the complaint. Standard operating procedure.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:38 PM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm amazed to see so many people here bending themselves into knots in order to figure out some possible way this is the student's fault. Or that there is no way IT and/or the school administration could have done this. Honestly, my experience with both IT personnel and school admins tells me that they would, in fact, spy on the kids in and out of school.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:39 PM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm going to go out on a limb and say the recent grad is misinformed. I guess it's possible the laptops were given to the students and stopped being school property the instant the students took possession. But more likely the laptops remained school property, and the students were granted exclusive use during their enrollment. I also think it's extremely likely they signed something when they took possession of the laptop, they most likely just didn't read it. A simple TOU stating what it can be used for, that the laptop shouldn't be intentionally damaged, the student would not reformat the drive, remove required applications, etc....
posted by Crash at 12:42 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think anybody's arguing it's not possible. Most of us seem to be struggling with the idea that school administrators would task IT staff with setting up a home monitoring program. Out of the box dead simple it may be, but you still have to turn on the cam, review the images, etc.

Start with the known facts, which are few: Both the school and the kid acknowledge that an incriminating photo or video was recorded by the hardware and transferred somehow to the school's possession. It's a long way from thee to a district-sanctioned, methodical spying policy. Occam's Razor points to the kid taking the image, and the admins stumbling on it somehow.

"yeah we could spy on your kids but we didn't actually do it this time." Because you can do something doesn't make you guilty of doing it. Just because my telescope points out my window doesn't mean I'm aiming it into yours.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:45 PM on February 18, 2010


I'm amazed to see so many people here bending themselves into knots in order to figure out some possible way this is the student's fault. Or that there is no way IT and/or the school administration could have done this. Honestly, my experience with both IT personnel and school admins tells me that they would, in fact, spy on the kids in and out of school.

I, on the other hand, I think that a rich kid's teenage narcissism and weaseling-out-of-trouble getting blown out of proportion is a lot more feasible rather than a Cabal of perverted school administrators keeping 24/7 tabs on 2300 separate webcams.
posted by griphus at 12:47 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


a rich kid's teenage narcissism and weaseling-out-of-trouble getting blown out of proportion is a lot more feasible rather than a Cabal of perverted school administrators keeping 24/7 tabs on 2300 separate webcams.

This.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:48 PM on February 18, 2010


It's stupidly easy (and 100% 50% effective) to put a piece of tape over the camera

they record sound as well as pictures, ya know
posted by unSane at 12:50 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Reason #48 to not waste taxpayer money on laptops for students:
Your mathbook won't spy on you.
posted by madajb at 12:52 PM on February 18, 2010


This.

Can we not do this here?
posted by Justinian at 12:56 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Any app with a hook into Quicktime can use the camera. Commercially available ones include EvoCam, Apple's own Quicktime Broadcaster, Photo Booth, and so on. Moreover, without needing to install *anything*, Apple Remote Desktop (which is probably what they are using to administer this system) will let you watch the users desktop, including any use of their webcam, in real time.

My guess is that the kid in question did something on his webcam, and an admin saw it on his desktop, and then captured a movie or screenshot. They might *also* have the ability to trigger the webcam remotely but this seems like the least malicious explanation, which doesn't make it Remotely (see what I did there?) right.
posted by unSane at 12:57 PM on February 18, 2010


Sorry I don't have a link, but CBS 3 Eyewitness News! just did a story where they said '...watched them undressing...' and I don't recall seeing that anywhere, in the .pdf of the filing or in any article.
posted by fixedgear at 1:10 PM on February 18, 2010


Can we not do this here?

Not this.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:20 PM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Sorry I don't have a link, but CBS 3 Eyewitness News! just did a story where they said '...watched them undressing...' and I don't recall seeing that anywhere, in the .pdf of the filing or in any article.

It was in the filing.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:28 PM on February 18, 2010


Can we not do this here?

Not this.


That?
posted by quin at 1:28 PM on February 18, 2010


Another question: what the hell were the chances they caught one kid out of 2,290 doing something illicit? Who is monitoring 2,290 different streams?

He's an admin for a network of macs; if the hype is to be believed, he has nothing but time to watch the teens get nekkid. =p But seriously, even in a mixed network environment where there's work to be done, a good sysadmin automates most things, and really does have hours a day to spend surfing webcams, as much as we do websites.

if you think about the forethought and configuration that had to be in place to conduct the kind of "spying" these stories imply -- it's inconceivable that the school set that up.

If by "inconceivable", you mean the total wet dream of a many high school principals, sure.

The idea that someone otherwise intelligent, will do something incredibly stupid, because they got too focused on their end goal of good, is such a common occurrence, we have a phrase for it, "he had the best of intentions".
posted by nomisxid at 1:32 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


That?

The other.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 1:32 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


There was a recent show (60 minutes?) that showed a school computer admin do this real time. He called the correspondent's attention to his computer where he was displaying the view from a student's laptop camera and then instant messaged the student to stop screwing around and get back to work. So its a standard policy at a least one school that issues laptops.
posted by 445supermag at 1:42 PM on February 18, 2010


...and really does have hours a day to spend surfing webcams, as much as we do websites.

In that case, why would he narc on the kid and nuke his own source of entertainment? It really doesn't make sense he'd do anything but keep his mouth shut. And, once again, one kid caught out of 2300 constantly monitored kids since September?
posted by griphus at 1:43 PM on February 18, 2010


It's stupidly easy (and 100% effective) to put a piece of tape over the camera, and trivial to disable it a hundred other ways. (An indicator could also be easily disabled, btw.)

It's also stupidly easy to avoid running strange executable files from sketchy emails, and to set your router to use encryption, but a lot of normal users don't know that and can get themselves into trouble.

Router manufacturers have started making it a lot more easy to set up encryption on routers, because running an encrypted wireless network is basically like putting a sign outside your house that says "Please mooch off of my Internet connection." I think it would make sense for laptop manufacturers to make it more difficult for users to accidentally let literally any application take webcam photos of them at any time, for the same sorts of reasons.

If the solution is to use tape to cover up the lens, then Apple should send a piece of electrical tape with their macbooks and a little note explaining that they made it extremely easy for any application to silently capture images without the user's knowledge. Or they could just provide a lens cap or a physical on/off switch that defaults to off. The point is that the way it works now is really a security hole waiting for an exploit for most normal users.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:44 PM on February 18, 2010


In that case, why would he narc on the kid and nuke his own source of entertainment? It really doesn't make sense he'd do anything but keep his mouth shut.

Unless he was told to do so as part of his job, by the administration, and so thought what he was doing was legal/ethical/required-to-keep-employment.
posted by nomisxid at 1:51 PM on February 18, 2010


Metafilter: smoking a joint while looking at porn.
posted by tzikeh at 1:52 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I did a bit more reading on this and Apple introduced some security features in 10.4 and later which prevented anyone but the current console user triggering the iSight camera remotely from the command line. This meant that you could no longer log in as another user and use a CLI to take pix, or have crontab fire a script as root.

However, there is a fairly trivial workaround, which is to use crontab to fire an AppleScript which launches the shell script. Even more trivially, have a script launched on login which runs in the background in the current userspace.

You can also do the same thing with shareware. You can configure Periscope to run at login, and can hide it if you know how. It will then take pictures at intervals of your choice, or on movement, or on sound, etc, and either email them or post them to an FTP account, as well as saving them locally.
posted by unSane at 1:53 PM on February 18, 2010


Unless he was told to do so as part of his job, by the administration, and so thought what he was doing was legal/ethical/required-to-keep-employment.

How is it that he (or they) came up with one example for all the time spent monitoring?
posted by griphus at 1:56 PM on February 18, 2010


what the hell were the chances they caught one kid out of 2,290 doing something illicit? Who is monitoring 2,290 different streams?

It would be extremely easy to have the webcams take still photos at regular intervals. Given that most students wouldn't keep their laptops on 24-7, that would just mean skimming through a lot of (mostly boring) images every few days. You wouldn't need to be watching them all in real time.

Honestly if you guys want proof this is easy to do, I can whip up a Python script to spy on you and send photos back to me, just give me a day or so.

How is it that he (or they) came up with one example for all the time spent monitoring?

My high school had security cameras everywhere. A lot of people thought they were fake until they caught one kid stealing from the cafeteria based on the tapes. Other than one or two incidences like that, you never would have known they were monitoring everyone all the time.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:00 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


In other news: Surveillance Cameras in Middle School Locker Rooms Violate Fourth Amendment, Appeals Court Rules.
posted by ericb at 2:15 PM on February 18, 2010


The allegation certainly is serious, but the complaint looks like it was written by an amateur. It provides no details about the monitoring software, only a statement by some school official at paragraph 24 saying that some sort of remote monitoring is possible. That's it. Hearsay.


Ironmouth is right. Notice pleading only requires that you put the defendant on notice as to the nature of cause of action and the date on which it arose. Pleadings (like a complaint) are not a procedurally proper place for an exposition of evidence.

As to the statement by a managerial employee that the conduct occurred, it is indeed hearsay. Except that there are a number of exceptions to the hearsay rule, one of which is a "party admission."

Lawyers who do this kind of work have an ethical obligation to make a pre-filing factual investigation to ensure that their pleadings are filed in good faith. Most of us take this very seriously, especially in a federal lawsuit. FRCP Rule 11 empowers the court to impose monetary sanctions against lawyers who fail to do a pre-filing investigation or who file claims in bad faith.

The complaint pretty much sets forth the allegations that there are witnesses to the things plead, party admissions, and documentary evidence supporting the claims. The defendant may, at the proper time, challenge the sufficiency of the evidence.

As an attorney, I am often amazed at the occasional momentary stupidity of ordinary people. But what is occasional in ordinary people is often ordinary in the occasional person, especially if they are some or other cog in a government bureaucracy. My little black heart is warmed every single time I get to expose the machinery employed by petty bureaucrats who imagine themselves unaccountable. This litigation looks like fun!
posted by Hylas at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


Over at Gizmodo and Boing Boing there is more stuff from other students saying that the iSight light would come on sporadically. One student said he talked to an IT guy who confirmed that they were using Apple Remote Desktop and that they had access to the cameras but didn't use it since it would violate the 5th. FWIW.
posted by unSane at 2:32 PM on February 18, 2010



So, how feasible is it that they have all those laptops taking pics all the time ?

An image from my camera on my Macbook pro, right now, is 120kB. If they are taking one shot every 5 minutes for 12 hours per day, that's 36 Gigs of data from all the students, every day. You get to a Terabyte inside of a month.

Even if you assume that the computers are on only 4 hours per day, on average, that's still ~350 Gigs per month of photos to sift through - all 9.5 million(!) of them. And at 1 pic every 5 minutes, it wouldn't necessarily get you anything useful, a higher frequency would be much better.

That's an awful lot of work and expense for one bust in however many years they've been doing this.

I tend to think that the more innocuous explanation is the easiest to assume - at least until more facts come to light - the kid took a photo of himself doing something stupid and the school found it. But, we shall see, hopefully.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:46 PM on February 18, 2010


And none of these students have access the the Acceptable Use policy that they signed when they received the laptops? I'd love to see a scan of that.
posted by muddgirl at 2:47 PM on February 18, 2010


I saw it to on some show too, pbs maybe, about kids in the digital age and how the school had issued out laptops. Mostly the kids used the webcams as mirrors but if the principal (or whatever admin) caught them messing about he'd have it take a snapshot to let them know they were being watched and get back to work.
posted by sweetmarie at 2:55 PM on February 18, 2010


I hope someone is imaging a hard drive right now.
posted by unSane at 3:02 PM on February 18, 2010


Link of interest:

http://www.macenterprise.org/webcasts/2008-archived-webcasts/lanrev46clientmanagement-may2008

Download the Powerpoint file, unzip, and go to slide 10.
posted by squid patrol at 3:30 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


The accompanying video, from the same zipped link above, has a discussion of the theft tracking at 35:28. With discussion of using the screen capture/webcam.


And the school has posted a response online here:

http://www.lmsd.org/sections/news/default.php?m=0&t=today&p=lmsd_anno&id=1137
posted by squid patrol at 3:33 PM on February 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Wow, things start to make sense now.
posted by waraw at 3:36 PM on February 18, 2010


Just to explain things a bit, that powerpoint and video are from the admin of Lower Merrion, discussing their practices re: theft tracking.
posted by squid patrol at 3:39 PM on February 18, 2010


Excellent links, thanks Squid Patrol. So it appears that my assumptions were mostly correct. The Assistant Principal kind of knew about the LANRev TheftTrack module but misinterpreted how it's used. Relayed this information to the parents of the boy, who decided to sue, and the shit hit the fan.

Note that we don't know yet whether any actual "spying" occurred. It's up the the plaintiff's lawyers to prove that allegation. As I've said, I'm inclined to believe that the district was not spying and that this is more about technical miscomprehension and pettiness than it is actually about invasion of privacy or spying. We may never know the truth.

So there. Everyone's wrong. And the lawyers make a mint. Congratulations all around.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 3:40 PM on February 18, 2010


Yeah, I don't think we know enough to make any kind of judgments here. My first guess was that the kid had probably taken a pic himself on the laptop, and then sent it around to friends, whereupon it made its way to the administration. That would seem most likely. But it does appear that the school had a policy of using the webcam to track missing laptops. So if the school thought this one had gone missing, or the kid had forgotten to check it out (however their system works), it does appear possible that the school might have snagged a pic themselves.
posted by squid patrol at 3:45 PM on February 18, 2010


Oh it was pbs's Digital Nation! Here's the clip! At 4:40 it says "Assistant Principal Dan Ackerman can remotely monitor the students' laptops for inappropriate use."
posted by sweetmarie at 3:57 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


$10 says the kid was smoking a joint.

Looks like you might be right.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 4:14 PM on February 18, 2010


Maybe it was LEGAL SMOKING HERBS.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:21 PM on February 18, 2010


were all of you so squeaky clean in high school that you weren't personally targeted by teachers/administration at school? the good teachers/admins are awesome - the bad ones are like tiny little gustapo, following kids around, trying to catch them in any perceived slight or wrongdoing to give them what's coming to them.

there are a few plausible explanations for all this - one is certainly that the kid took the picture and the school found it. another is that he had gotten under someone's skin, that someone knew they could remotely access the laptop, they did so, and they caught him being the little shit he was, then in being so proud of being able to get him in trouble they let the info out by way of a letter to the parents, either being too dumb or too blind to realize the repercussions of their actions.
posted by nadawi at 4:42 PM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


my point being that there is no reason to assume they were monitoring all the kids all the time for the allegations to be true.
posted by nadawi at 4:44 PM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Interesting post from the person in question:

http://bestsinceslicedbread.blogspot.com/2009/09/turning-built-in-isight-on-and-off.html
posted by squid patrol at 5:01 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


On the first day that they arrived in the office, two of my co-workers covered their new MacBook cameras with a small piece of tape.

I remember smiling but maybe it was a clueless grin.
posted by bz at 5:19 PM on February 18, 2010


I can utterly believe some high school administrators would monitor student's home life- there's a lot of principals out there who regard "1984" as a teacher's manual.
posted by happyroach at 6:22 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well from the things that I know, many enterprise level management tools run at system level, an can deploy software after the fact, when the client system checks in. On top of that if you have admin access you can pretty much do jsut about anything both in front and behind the scenes without user knowledge, the only thing that would be a trigger is if the cam has a hardwired 'active' light.
posted by MrLint at 6:42 PM on February 18, 2010


So, before I light up this joint, how do I disable the microphone?
posted by box at 7:03 PM on February 18, 2010


If the school district is to be believed, they simply activated anti-theft software after the laptop was reported stolen. So the kid just happened to be wanking/smoking/whatever in front of a stolen laptop that was in his posession when the program took its snapshot. Makes a lot more sense to me that the administration thought it was OK to take that picture to the kid's parents, who misunderstood the sequence of events & flipped out. They just wanted the laptop back; whatever else the kid was doing was gravy.
posted by scalefree at 7:41 PM on February 18, 2010


Damn, why do all the shameful stories that end up making (inter)national news happen in the Philadelphia area (... *is from Philadelphia*)?!
posted by Mael Oui at 7:54 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fwiw, the school has confirmed that they had software on the machines that could be used for this purpose:

The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today. [...] 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.

In a separate post, the superintendent writes:

As a result of our preliminary review of security procedures today, I directed the following actions:
posted by effbot at 8:01 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry if it's been linked earlier, but here is more confirmation that they activated webcams. A big IF.
posted by fixedgear at 8:43 PM on February 18, 2010


"Yes, a technician could have written a script or policy to trigger PhotoBooth to take pictures using the webcam on a timed interval, but there is simply no reason to do so. I can't think of a single legitimate and non-nefarious reason for a school district to decide to enable that kind of monitoring. It just doesn't make any sense."

"Another question: what the hell were the chances they caught one kid out of 2,290 doing something illicit? Who is monitoring 2,290 different streams? "

"If they are taking one shot every 5 minutes for 12 hours per day, that's 36 Gigs of data from all the students, every day. You get to a Terabyte inside of a month.

Even if you assume that the computers are on only 4 hours per day, on average, that's still ~350 Gigs per month of photos to sift through - all 9.5 million(!) of them. And at 1 pic every 5 minutes, it wouldn't necessarily get you anything useful, a higher frequency would be much better."


This line of argument is a complete red herring. Nowhere does the complaint argue that this was happening.

In the original complaint under Substantive Allegations:

"...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 Plaintiffs personal laptop issued to the School District"

(emphasis mine)

In other words someone believed he was "engaged in improper behavior in his home" and decided to use the remote camera to get evidence of this.

This is perfectly possible in fact the School District has admitted they had the capacity to do this.

"The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops...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."
(from http://www.lmsd.org/sections/news/default.php?m=0&t=today&p=lmsd_anno&id=1137).

(emphasis mine)

N.B. It is a manually operated feature. It could hardly be other wise -- there is no magic way to know if it's been stolen -- you can only act on reports, so though it should only be used for theft tracking there is nothing to stop it being used for other purposes.

So it is perfectly clear that there is a possibility for abusing this feature in the manner alleged using nothing but the standard features of the software. No need to invent Orwellian surveillance systems or technical barriers to them.

And if someone was unscrupulous enough to do this to one person isn't likely in these circumstances that they did it to more than one? Hence the class action, and there is anecdotal evidence (as cited above at Ars Technica) that they might have been doing just this.
posted by tallus at 9:22 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


This just don't seem right. I've read all of the links and the defenses people have offered in-thread, but it just don't seem right that the school can take a picture of you/your location when you're not in school, without your consent (or that of your parents). Without even notification that they can and will do it.

The school district has already admitted that they did not notify the students and the parents that they had this capability and have used it (even if it was only in the event of suspicion of theft). That right there seems like a big problem to me! There was no consent! At first I thought maybe it was in the small print of whatever paperwork the parents/students get when they first receive the laptop, but the school district has already come out and said that they didn't notify anyone.

So how is that okay?

Assuming I am right and this is way wrong, well, who cares what the kid was doing? Who cares if he is a spoiled rich kid? Why is that even coming up? It doesn't even matter to me if the school really did turn on the camera in this case. They've admitted to doing it without notification and without permission in other cases! They've basically planted a bug in the home of every student, and they can choose when they want to monitor or not. Every single student who ever got one of these laptops has been violated.
posted by Danila at 9:26 PM on February 18, 2010


Yes, I'm sure the *policy* was that the feature was only supposed to be activated in the case of a stolen or missing laptop. The wording of the press release is that the District School Board never used it in any other way, not that it was never used in any other way.
posted by unSane at 9:27 PM on February 18, 2010


mrbarrett.com Excellent links, thanks Squid Patrol. So it appears that my assumptions were mostly correct. . .So there. Everyone's wrong.

Mostly correct, huh? What about your a much more likely scenario is that the kid took a picture of himself with the webcam, doing something stupid/illegal and the school found that picture on the computer's HD and now wants to discipline him for the infraction theory, mr. network administrator?
posted by mlis at 9:28 PM on February 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


I so want mrbarret.com to be wrong, because I'm 99.9% sure he is wrong.

Assuming I am right and this is way wrong, well, who cares what the kid was doing? Who cares if he is a spoiled rich kid? Why is that even coming up? It doesn't even matter to me if the school really did turn on the camera in this case. They've admitted to doing it without notification and without permission in other cases! They've basically planted a bug in the home of every student, and they can choose when they want to monitor or not. Every single student who ever got one of these laptops has been violated.

This is the crux of the matter.
posted by fixedgear at 9:34 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's how I view it.

1. the laptop is school property
2. the school has a right to monitor their laptops, where they are, and what they are being used for.
3. if a student is doing something illegal with a school laptop and happens to be using it at exact moment the school's IT dept captures an image during an investigation of #2, then the student (or his parents) should not be getting upset that little Junior's privacy was invaded.

Now, if it turns out that some creepy IT dude (or school employee/administrator) was using this capability to spy on kids, then we have a completely different issue at hand, but none of the information I've see so far indicate anything like this.

It really sounds to me like the kid got caught doing something illegal, the school notified the parents, the kid played dumb and the parents freaked out and over-reacted by suing the school with unfounded accusations of privacy invasion.
posted by camworld at 9:48 PM on February 18, 2010


Yay, I get to quote myself!

LANRev does have a module called TheftTrack that can be enabled and configured to take photos with the webcam in the case of laptop theft. The Administration in this school district may be referring to that and the parents of this kid and the lawyers are misinterpreting what the software module can and cannot do.

So, yeah, mostly correct, Mr. MLIS. We don't know if the other scenario I outlined is correct or not. But it's looking more likely that this one is closer to the truth.

Is it possible that LMSD abused the theft-tracking software that was installed on these computers and broke the law by violating privacy, etc.? Maybe. But that's for the lawyers to prove. I still believe that it's more likely that the software was installed for theft-tracking and that it wasn't abused, and that this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 9:56 PM on February 18, 2010


Virginia DiMedio, who was the Lower Merion district's technology director until she retired last summer, said that "if there was a report that a computer was stolen, the next time a person opened it up, it would take their picture and give us their IP [internet protocol] address - the location of where it was coming from." She said that that feature had been used several times to trace stolen laptops, but there had been no discussion of using that capability to monitor students' behavior. "I can't imagine anyone in the district did anything other than track stolen computers," she said.

Source
posted by fixedgear at 10:23 PM on February 18, 2010


From fixedgear's comment: I always thought they were crazy and that the district, one of the more respectable ones within the state, would never pull some ***** like this. I guess I was wrong.

Replace district with US and that pretty much sums up most American's views of civil liberteries over the past decade.

Except we haven't reached the "I guess I was wrong" part yet. Maybe this mess will push us a bit towards that.
posted by formless at 10:37 PM on February 18, 2010


Err, civil liberties.. Sigh.
posted by formless at 10:38 PM on February 18, 2010


Don't forget that this is a kid speaking. Not that they can't have an opinion, but that their parents - smart, well-off, accomplished - had no clue.
posted by fixedgear at 10:46 PM on February 18, 2010


In other words someone believed he was "engaged in improper behavior in his home" and decided to use the remote camera to get evidence of this.

You've got this backwards. They discovered he was doing something "improper" when they took his picture while they were tracking the stolen laptop.

I have a similar program running on my laptop. Every so often it pings a server & checks for an OK/not OK message. If it gets the not OK response it collects a bunch of state information like IP address, WiFi SSID, list of programs running; grabs a screenshot & snapshot via iSight & uploads the lot to the server. I activate it by sending an email with my account & password to the server. In this case it just so happened the kid was sitting in front of the laptop doing something naughty when the program was activated. If he wasn't in possession of a stolen laptop he wouldn't have had his picture taken & his privacy invaded.

I understand the bad optics are forcing the school to take action but I think they're totally in the right here.
posted by scalefree at 10:49 PM on February 18, 2010


Virginia DiMedio, who was the Lower Merion district's technology director until she retired last summer

Yeah, thought so. A few years ago I had some business that intersected Lower Merion's network, I met Virginia to keep her informed. Nice lady. Can't imagine her being involved in any shenanigans like they're being accused of.
posted by scalefree at 11:04 PM on February 18, 2010


Wait, what stolen laptop? His parents are jerkoffs like me, big Montco taxpayers. He's in school. He's been issued a laptop.
posted by fixedgear at 11:18 PM on February 18, 2010


Regardless of who did what, this is why I'm glad MacBooks have a light that comes on any time the camera is powered up.
posted by Mikey-San at 11:30 PM on February 18, 2010


1. the laptop is school property
2. the school has a right to monitor their laptops, where they are, and what they are being used for.


You live in a strange, crazy world, mrbarrett.com.

I rent an apartment - which I do not own. Does that mean my landlord gets to monitor his apartment to see what it's being used for?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:38 PM on February 18, 2010


Wait, what stolen laptop?

According to the school district they activated the software after one of the laptops they issued to a student was reported stolen, presumably by the student it was issued to. The kid doesn't own the laptop, the school does. He just gets to use it while he's enrolled there. Either he lied about his laptop being stolen or he was in possession of someone else's. Either way he was a thief. Hell, for all we know being in possession of the laptop may be the "improper behavior" he was accused of.
posted by scalefree at 11:41 PM on February 18, 2010


They discovered he was doing something "improper" when they took his picture while they were tracking the stolen laptop.

What is this, "Make Things Up Out Of Your Head Day"?

Where is any of these articles is there even an implication that the laptop was stolen? The original link explicitly says, "[...] cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the School District."
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:42 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I rent an apartment - which I do not own. Does that mean my landlord gets to monitor his apartment to see what it's being used for?

No but they do have the right to put a tracking device in it so they can find it if you ever try to steal it & sell it to someone else.
posted by scalefree at 11:43 PM on February 18, 2010


Wait, what stolen laptop? His parents are jerkoffs like me, big Montco taxpayers. He's in school. He's been issued a laptop.

A likely explanation is that the kid's machine was mistakenly identified as stolen. Maybe the school's system for keeping track of the laptops had a bug in it. Maybe someone goofed on a digit while manually entering the serial number.

Somehow the machine got tagged as stolen in the school's system without a report being filed, then the recovery process rolled into action and bang, there's your incriminating image. Still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but I'm firmly with the "theft tracking system screwup" and against the "sinister Orwellian cabal" theory.

I guess it's not even surprising that the school decided to take action against this kid for smoking pot in his bedroom or whatever he was doing, rather than quietly closing the stolen laptop issue once it was found to have not been stolen. They had to balance the potential for public outrage against the potential heat they could take for not informing a parent that they had such a photo in their possession.

Sounds basically like, "look, we caught your kid doing something sketchy, the way we caught him was in itself kind of a sketchy accident and we're not really glad it happened, but it did happen, and we feel like we have to notify you about what we discovered."

I don't subscribe to this theory out of a trust in the inherent goodness of school officials. I agree with the comments above that no school administration would have the time, the tech skills and least of all a good reason to set up some kind of obviously illegal secret mass kid surveillance operation.
posted by chaff at 11:45 PM on February 18, 2010


From LMSD response to invasion of privacy allegation:
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.
posted by scalefree at 11:48 PM on February 18, 2010


Where is any of these articles is there even an implication that the laptop was stolen?

If I'm reading the superintendent's statement correctly, the school's defense is that the laptop was thought to be stolen:
posted by chaff at 11:48 PM on February 18, 2010


Yeah that link . . but also scalefree is right that this may have been somebody else's laptop, which would tie the whole thing up nicely without need of that scene from Risky Business.
posted by chaff at 11:50 PM on February 18, 2010


No but they do have the right to put a tracking device in it so they can find it if you ever try to steal it & sell it to someone else.

How do you get from a "tracking device" to a camera that secretly sends pictures?

You should be careful with the superintendent's statement, which starts:

"The following questions and answers help explain the background behind the initial decision to install the tracking-security feature, its limited use, and next steps."

[...]

"• How did the security feature work?
Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District's security and technology departments. "

Note that they are not saying, "THAT laptop was reported lost, stolen or missing, and we turned the camera on." They are saying, "Our policy was the following: [...]" and then after that they say, "We've always followed that policy" but they don't admit to turning on any camera at all, nor are they claiming that that specific laptop was reported stolen.

Why wouldn't they just say, "The laptop was reported stolen, so we turned on the camera and we saw the kid performing an illegal activity" if this were true, instead of this complex end-run around the statement?

The only real interpretation that seems to fit all of this is that some laptop was missing (with thousands out there, there will always be one missing) so they turned on lots of cameras and started snooping.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:13 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Anyone who went to school near or in Lower Merion school district mefimail me, yo. (not everywhere in LM is fancy. or at least not everyone who lived near there grew up fancy. not that I care where anyone grew up, but it's also true.)
posted by herodotus at 12:14 AM on February 19, 2010


How do you get from a "tracking device" to a camera that secretly sends pictures?

The same way you go from an object you carry around with you to a building you live inside. It was an inapt analogy to begin with.

Why wouldn't they just say, "The laptop was reported stolen, so we turned on the camera and we saw the kid performing an illegal activity" if this were true, instead of this complex end-run around the statement?

Because they were talking about policies & how they were implemented in a general sense, not the incident at hand which is the subject of litigation. As a legal strategy it makes sense to use the widest language possible, to avoid getting bogged down in the details while still covering the relevant facts. This way they can answer the elements of the claim without addressing the specifics of the incident. They're being sued, they can't be open & plainspoken as you'd like them to be. Our legal system does not favor people who act that way.
posted by scalefree at 12:54 AM on February 19, 2010


I think people are misreading that article by the school district. They are not saying what happened in this particular case. They are explaining how they supposedly used the feature when they did use it. They aren't admitting to using it here. This is an important admission because a lot of people were claiming that there's no way they were doing anything like this and the kid must be lying or the vice principal was loopy or something.

I doubt the kid stole the laptop. Remember, the vice principal just told the kid he did something wrong and they had the proof from a webcam photo. He's the one who told his parents about it. There was no investigation, no cops called, no return of laptop.

But their own statement has them acknowledging that they used this "feature" without notifying the students or the parents that they'd be doing it. So basically every student just brought home a little bug and no one knew it. I don't care what justifications the school district gives, they should have warned people and given them the choice to have something like that in their homes.
posted by Danila at 1:11 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]



1. the laptop is school property
2. the school has a right to monitor their laptops, where they are, and what they are being used for.
3. if a student is doing something illegal with a school laptop and happens to be using it at exact moment the school's IT dept captures an image during an investigation of #2, then the student (or his parents) should not be getting upset that little Junior's privacy was invaded.


Legal ownership does not grant an exemption for following the law and it certainly doesn't abrogate constitutionally protected rights.

A likely explanation is that the kid's machine was mistakenly identified as stolen. Maybe the school's system for keeping track of the laptops had a bug in it. Maybe someone goofed on a digit while manually entering the serial number.

Somehow the machine got tagged as stolen in the school's system without a report being filed, then the recovery process rolled into action and bang, there's your incriminating image.


If this is the case the School District are still in the wrong: Their procedures for ensuring that this feature was used "legitimately" were inadequate and can be seen to have failed in this case. Furthermore their response on discovering it seems wholly questionable.
posted by tallus at 2:17 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Boing Boing (and Cory Doctorow) have a long history of alarmist and sensationalistic journalism.
that is true.
posted by krautland at 5:23 AM on February 19, 2010


2. the school has a right to monitor their laptops, where they are, and what they are being used for.

There has to be something very wrong with if you think that snapping a picture from the webcam has anything to do with that.
posted by empath at 6:44 AM on February 19, 2010


The guy Jeff Schreiber at America's Right, who broke the story (he was there when the complaint was filed -- I think he's a law student), has now posted an update. A commenter called Michelle Zhang who claims to be a former student says that her friends told her the kid was eating Mike 'n Ike's candy and was accused by the school of popping pills. FWIW.
posted by unSane at 7:08 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Also I would imagine that this Schrieber character knows the details of the case -- I'm guessing he's an intern at the law firm in question -- so if you want to follow it he's probably a good source to monitor).
posted by unSane at 7:09 AM on February 19, 2010


It's gonna take a lot more than that to make me visit a site called "America's Right," unSane.
posted by Shepherd at 7:23 AM on February 19, 2010


Wuss.
posted by unSane at 7:31 AM on February 19, 2010


[I live in the faint but persistent hope that civil liberties is one of those issues that could actually provide a organizing principle for a political movement which goes beyond the bankrupt rhetoric of right and left. And I don't mean libertarian.]
posted by unSane at 7:33 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop"

where is the report? who filed it with the school?

sorry but still

"Assuming I am right and this is way wrong, well, who cares what the kid was doing? Who cares if he is a spoiled rich kid? Why is that even coming up? It doesn't even matter to me if the school really did turn on the camera in this case. They've admitted to doing it without notification and without permission in other cases! They've basically planted a bug in the home of every student, and they can choose when they want to monitor or not. Every single student who ever got one of these laptops has been violated.

This is the crux of the matter.
posted by fixedgear at 9:34 PM on February 18 [+] [!] "

agree. they can say "this kid is a bad apple, lets catch him" or (if pervy) "that 13 yr old girl, lets take some pics" and away they go. jeez. i would be fuckin glivid if i had kids and found out they were doing this. it is spying and invasion of privacy.
posted by marienbad at 8:15 AM on February 19, 2010


The guy Jeff Schreiber at America's Right, who broke the story (he was there when the complaint was filed -- I think he's a law student), has now posted an update. A commenter called Michelle Zhang who claims to be a former student says that her friends told her the kid was eating Mike 'n Ike's candy and was accused by the school of popping pills. FWIW.
posted by unSane at 10:08 AM on February 19 [+] [!]

(Also I would imagine that this Schrieber character knows the details of the case -- I'm guessing he's an intern at the law firm in question -- so if you want to follow it he's probably a good source to monitor).


Christ, if an intern at my firm did that w/o authorization, he'd be fired and rightly so.

But his analysis appears flawed:

Furthermore, if it is to be determined that Lower Merion School District activated the remote access to the district-issued laptop computers without notice or consent of students and parents, as the school district certain seems to admit to in its statement, then the school administrators have also run afoul of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Section 1030 of which notes that “[w]hoever … intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access” and obtains information shall be subject to punishment. Certainly, remote activation of a webcam in someone’s private home without consent constitutes “exceeds authorized access,” especially considering the United States Supreme Court’s holding in 1980’s Payton v. New York that “[a]bsent exigent circumstances,” when it comes to unreasonable search the Fourth Amendment “has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house.”

OK, but the computer is the school district's making them an authorized user. I don't think the CFAA is going to help them there. This is a Fourth Amendment violation, pure and simple. Its a section 1983 violation.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:19 AM on February 19, 2010


I'm guessing it was done with authorization, and in any case the PDF is available on the court website.
posted by unSane at 9:47 AM on February 19, 2010


Have I mentioned I'm glad I'm not a kid these days?

When my kids get older, I don't want to have to check all the school equipment they bring home for administrative spyware.

And if they get up to something illegal in my house? That's my problem to deal with, not the school's.

(And that's all assuming that no one in authority would abuse their powers. Which is a bad assumption.)

I'm constantly startled by folks who aren't troubled by the messages we're sending our kids by allowing schools to turn into miniature police states.
posted by feckless at 10:06 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


The same way you go from an object you carry around with you to a building you live inside. It was an inapt analogy to begin with.

You are hairsplitting. Suppose it was a car you were renting - mobile, portable - would you feel it reasonable if they included a secret camera?

Or renting a cell phone - where they had the ability to secretly listen to your calls?

The cell phone's a perfect example... even if you just went off with the rented cell phone, the phone company neither has the legal or moral authority to secretly bug your calls. If they want to protect their phones, there are plenty of ways to do so - get a credit card; get ID and then sue you if you don't return it; give the phone a remote "kill switch".
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:16 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or renting a cell phone - where they had the ability to secretly listen to your calls?

But the kids weren't renters. And they were apparently warned (maybe not with enough force) that the computers could be tracked if reported lost or stolen.

I'd bet the kid told a teacher he couldn't hand in his homework because he lost his laptop, the teacher told the administrators it was lost, and bada boom bada bing, they find the kid that evening picking his nose and watching youporn from his bedroom on his parents wifi.

But, you know, this sort of asset tracking is very, very popular. I was just at a presentation yesterday from a major laptop vendor, and thier new line includes the ability to do this - but the computer doesn't even need to be on, it's totally out of band. Welcome to the future.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:43 AM on February 19, 2010


All of the anecdata (see posts from kids on gizmodo and arstechnica) is that the cam lights were coming on sporadically for reasons which were not explained by the IT guy (the only reason the light is *ever* on is that something is accessing the camera). The school board says explicitly that it didn't publicize the tracking feature.

If they were using something like Undercover it's one thing, but if they just had a hook into the webcam that an IT could access at will but was only supposed to in the case of a lost or stolen laptop, that's quite another.

There's a reason that government agencies have to obtain warrants for wiretaps and other surveillance activities. Even if the school board had probable cause to suspect the laptop had been stolen, firing up the webcam to find out who had it landed them in a world of hurt. Using the information so obtained to make an allegation against a kid for something he was doing in his own home just dug the whole deeper, especially if it turned out to be innocent (which at least one account says it was).
posted by unSane at 11:17 AM on February 19, 2010


I'm guessing it was done with authorization, and in any case the PDF is available on the court website

I reviewed the complaint. It doesn't go into the details of the user agreement. But the laptop is the property of the school district. Therefore, a claim of unauthorized use is likely to fail. However, the school district is a local governmental entity and therefore covered by the 4th Amendment. So it cannot violate that amendment, even with its own property. I'd have brought this under section 1983.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:42 AM on February 19, 2010


Updates. The principal is now saying that it was just a security measure that kicked in if the laptop was reported stolen. Also, the kid who got in trouble had a publicly-accessible facebook page with incriminating photos on it, which may have been the source of the photo.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:49 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Question: LANrev's theft tracking feature allows an administrator to get the computer's current IP address, capture a screenshot and take a photo owith the webcam. Hopefully this will allow the police to find what the thief looks like, what they're using it for, and, once they get a subpoena, trace the IP address to particular customer.

Wouldn't using this feature legally require reporting the laptop as stolen, and obtaining a search warrant, at least if it was going to be useful in producing evidence that could be used in court to prosecute a thief? Is there a protocol for using this feature?
posted by nangar at 11:57 AM on February 19, 2010


Nangar, as I understand it, if it's the user or the principal that is triggering the camera, you don't need a search warrant. Without delving into the rules of evidence, basically the constitution protects you from unwarranted government searches; it doesn't protect you from private actors. Admitting evidence that a private party got from you, even illegally, doesn't impinge on your constitutional protections.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:05 PM on February 19, 2010


The Principal is by no means a private actor, nor is the District School Board.
posted by unSane at 12:09 PM on February 19, 2010


The Principal is by no means a private actor, nor is the District School Board.

True, but then the argument will turn on whether there is an expectation of privacy while using the school district's equipment.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:13 PM on February 19, 2010


Good luck with that one.
posted by unSane at 12:16 PM on February 19, 2010


Oh yeah, public school. Hm.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:20 PM on February 19, 2010


craven_morhead, the principal of a public school is not a private actor but a government official, bound by the Fourth Amendment.
posted by prefpara at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2010


Good luck with that one.

Well, there is no expectation of privacy when using their lockers. And employers enjoy very broad privileges over what happens on their computers and networks that they own.

I'm not a lawyer, sure, but it seems to me that there is a good case here that school was within their rights to use the camera.

Note - I said "seems". I don't have all of the facts necessary to draw a definitive conclusion. I could contrive scenarios under which the school is either devil or angel or somewhere in between. So yeah, I fully agree that the school could be in some very big trouble, depending on what circumstances can be demonstrated to have occurred. I remain open to changing my mind as more facts come to light.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:34 PM on February 19, 2010


craven_morhead, the principal of a public school is not a private actor but a government official, bound by the Fourth Amendment.

Yeah, this is a factor I'd just realized myself. So it comes down to expectation of privacy, which given that this is new technology who knows how the courts will see it.
posted by scalefree at 12:42 PM on February 19, 2010


You are hairsplitting. Suppose it was a car you were renting - mobile, portable - would you feel it reasonable if they included a secret camera?

If you supposed it was a not-secret microphone you could call it OnStar & sell it as a service for 20 bucks a month. It's all in the suppositions.
posted by scalefree at 12:47 PM on February 19, 2010


The locker analogy is fatuous. And employers are not bound by the fourth.
posted by unSane at 12:49 PM on February 19, 2010



It's a quiet afternoon, so, here's a couple of links for info

Searches in school - New Jersey Vs. TLO Basically, schools don't need a warrant if they reasonably suspect a violation has occurred.

and Askthejudge on student text message privacy at school - basically, if the school has reason to believe they need to see whats on the phone, they can. But it's a grey area that is not clearly set out law.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:50 PM on February 19, 2010




The locker analogy is fatuous.

It wasn't an analogy. It also wasn't fatuous. It's an actual fact :

"School authorities may search a student's locker and seize any illegal materials. Such materials may be used as evidence against the student in disciplinary proceedings. Prior to a locker search the students shall be notified and given an opportunity to be present. However, where school authorities have a reasonable suspicion that the locker contains materials which pose a threat to the health, welfare and safety of students in the school, student lockers may be searched without prior warning."

(PA Code § 12.14)

And employers are not bound by the fourth.

Schools are less bound by the fourth than the Police are. See Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Vincent Francis Cass: Students may be subject to search when the search is reasonable given the circumstances and if the search itself is reasonably limited in its scope to the initial objective prompting the search.

I'm not convinced the kid has a 4th amendment right to argue from here.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:05 PM on February 19, 2010


All of that stuff is on school premises where the school has a duty of care.
posted by unSane at 1:09 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Let me ask some questions that have been asked above in a slightly different way.

If I lend a laptop to a friend and impose some conditions - bring it back in three days like you promised, don't install any software on it, don't try to hack my account which I've got password protected anyway - and I use remote access, which I've had set up beforehand for other reasons, to take pictures of them while they're using it, is that OK?

Ethically? Legally?

Does trust between a school board and parents of children enrolled in school system, or their kids, count for anything at all?

Of course, the school system might able to regain trust if the allegations turn out to be false.
posted by nangar at 1:26 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lower Merion School District admits it’s used webcam “security feature” more than once

Still waiting for LMPD, who haven't said anything. Wouldn't they be involved in a theft case?
posted by fixedgear at 1:35 PM on February 19, 2010


I read 49 times somewhere, resulting in 23 or so laptops being found.
posted by unSane at 1:39 PM on February 19, 2010



Legally ? Yep - it's yours after all.
Ethically ? That would depend on the circumstances. If your friend lied and said it was stolen, then what's wrong with using the software to locate it ? Millions of people and businesses use these or similar tools for just that reason.

Does trust between a school board and parents of children enrolled in school system, or their kids, count for anything at all?

Sure it does. But no one would be complaining if the security system caught an actual thief - and for all we know, it did. Again, it isn't unreasonable for the software to be on there and to be used.

So, assuming that the laptop was reported as stolen, and that the pictures were captured as part of that investigation, I think the school is in the clear. I'm not convinced those assumptions are true - they could be wrong. But my gut feeling says they are.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:44 PM on February 19, 2010


Good use of the webcam
posted by fixedgear at 1:49 PM on February 19, 2010


Legally ? Yep - it's yours after all.

The laws in thirteen states expressly prohibit the unauthorized installation or use of cameras in "private" places. These states include: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Utah. In these states, the installation or use of any device for photographing, observing or eavesdropping actions or audio in a "private" place without permission of those being observed or listened to is a crime punishable by law. Some states also prohibit trespassing on private property to conduct unauthorized surveillance of people there. These states include: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Utah. In most of these states, the unauthorized installation or use of Hidden Cameras (those that are seen as violating ones 4th Amendment rights to privacy) is a felony offense.

Violating such laws is punishable by a $2,000.00 fine and a sentence of up to 2 years in prison.

Go here.
posted by unSane at 1:56 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Latest:
HILADELPHIA — A law-enforcement official with knowledge of the case says the FBI has opened a criminal investigation into a Pennsylvania school district accused of activating webcams inside students' homes without their knowledge.

The official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, says the FBI will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws.

Lower Merion officials say they remotely activated webcams 42 times to find missing student laptops in the past 14 months, but never did so to spy on students, as a recent lawsuit claims.

The Montgomery County district attorney also is gathering information to determine whether to open an investigation.
posted by unSane at 2:13 PM on February 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


From fixedgear's link:
CP: Did Blake Robbins steal the laptop?
DY: I can't refer to the specifics of the case, but I can say that the feature would not be activated unless it was reported stolen. A student or family member would have to report that it was stolen for us to use it.
Puts that controversy to rest. Unless they're lying, at least.
posted by scalefree at 2:16 PM on February 19, 2010


The complaint says that it was his personal laptop, so it seems unlikely that he stole it. It could however have been reported lost or stolen but subsequently located I guess.
posted by unSane at 2:27 PM on February 19, 2010


Lawyer sez Mike and Ike candy was mistaken for drugs. The 'rents will be on Katie Couric at 6:30 if you are interested.
posted by fixedgear at 3:09 PM on February 19, 2010


T-shirt

Drugs from CBS news interview.
posted by fixedgear at 4:10 PM on February 19, 2010


Key take-aways from the interview with the family...

-- they claim it was his personal laptop from the school & hadn't been reported stolen or lost
-- he was accused of selling drugs, which he denies. There was a shot of a packet of candy but it wasn't specifically referred to.
posted by unSane at 4:27 PM on February 19, 2010


1. the laptop is school property
2. the school has a right to monitor their laptops, where they are, and what they are being used for.


Not in America they don't-- except, of course, if we suspect something about drugs. In that case, the school or the government has the right to keep a camera in your butt if it wants to and everyone will comply because "OMG! DRUGS!"

Clearly, what happened is that someone narced on this kid to the school administrators and they started looking for evidence of drug dealing. But even the police, even in drug war America, are not allowed to put a camera in your bedroom on the basis of a rumor-- and certainly not without a warrant.

Taking home that computer in no way allows the school to monitor your behavior 24/7-- I don't think any parent would give permission for the school to do that in order to get a free laptop for their kids, especially not in a rich district. I'm sure the parents realize that the computer might be left anywhere and could spy on the *parents*, not just the kids-- and even the most control-freak parents tend to want to monitor their kids themselves, not give school officials a window into their teenage daughter's bedrooms.
posted by Maias at 6:20 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have a really hard time believing that all the people claiming that the school would never do anything like this.

Seriously. 1984 was over a quarter century ago, and progress is coming along. Believe it - schools are spying on kids.
posted by Sukiari at 7:30 PM on February 20, 2010


"In the paperwork students signed when they got the computers, families were not told that the Webcams could be activated in their homes without permission, said Doug Young, a district spokesman. “It’s clear what was in place was insufficient, and that’s unacceptable,” he said."
posted by rtha at 12:48 PM on February 21, 2010


In the paperwork students signed when they got the computers, families were not told that the Webcams could be activated in their homes without permission

Yeah that's unfortunate and it's something that should count against them, but elsewhere they've said they did it to not expose their security measures not so they could spy on kids. It was still a poor decision but hardly a malicious one.
posted by scalefree at 2:41 PM on February 21, 2010


Let's say for the sake of argument that they thought the laptop was stolen. They activate the camera, see that the student has it. Now, unless the student is getting raped by his uncle or something, I think the ethical thing to do is delete the photo and forget you saw anything. School administrators are fucking busybodies, though.
posted by empath at 4:34 PM on February 21, 2010


LANrev mentioned as monitoring software.
posted by fixedgear at 2:06 AM on February 22, 2010


Lawyers for the kid and the 'rents are in court seeking a TRO to prevent LMSD from recalling the laptops, presumably to prevent LMSD from destroying data.
posted by fixedgear at 10:41 AM on February 22, 2010


Pa. schools agree to preserve webcam evidence.
posted by ericb at 2:21 PM on February 22, 2010


There's a detailed analysis of some training/promotional videos starring Mr Perbix as well as some forensics of the LANrev software here.
posted by Skorgu at 2:25 PM on February 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


Thanks, Skorgu, I was looking for that as it was mentioned in the philly.com article I posted very early this morning.
posted by fixedgear at 3:13 PM on February 22, 2010


I think we've found the villain of our piece. The district's policymakers made some mistakes in setting things up but clearly Mr. Perbix has been coloring outside the lines.
posted by scalefree at 4:08 PM on February 22, 2010


Wow. That photo of Mr. Perbix is worth a million words. He seems exactly like a younger version of the network tech I visited, the one going after the kids googling "sex".

god save us all from petty tyrants.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:26 PM on February 22, 2010


So you're ready to convict Michael Perbix based in part on his photograph, dunkadunc? How about waiting until all the evidence is revealed before casting judgment on the parties involved, which, personally is what's been bothering me most about this case. So many people are willing to be judge, jury, and executioner based on limited information and very little technical understanding of the software being used for tracking of stolen laptops.

LANrev is a powerful tool and like many tools, in the wrong hands, or in the hands of a rogue administrator, it can be grossly abused. Such is the nature of these things. Let's allow the forensics experts and lawyers discover the truth of who did what, when, and why, and reserve judgment until then.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 6:55 PM on February 22, 2010


mrbarrett.com: "Such is the nature of these things. Let's allow the forensics experts and lawyers discover the truth of who did what, when, and why, and reserve judgment until then."

We already KNOW a very scary truth and it shouldn't be minimized. Students were required to bring bugged "monitored" laptops into their homes. School administrators were ready, willing, and able to use the monitoring features and have admitted to doing so, without ever informing students and parents about it. If I were a Lower Merion student I know I would feel grossly violated. Sheesh, I feel icky about it every time I even think of this case as I'm typing on my laptop. This is just wrong. There's a whole amendment about this!

And that's just what they admit doing. You might feel comfortable dismissing all of the students who have come forward to talk about those pesky green lights, or the vice principal who started this all as being someone who was just "confused", or the student brave enough to come forward about this, who you and others have strongly implied is a liar. And now the website of the school's tech admin wherein he is absolutely giddy about using the technology to spy on students. But I'm not. I don't even need to know about any of that stuff to know something very wrong happened here and if they could do what they've admitted to doing (secret monitoring, a policy you doubted even existed) they could certainly do some other wickedness, but now wrongness on top of wrongness continues to be piled.
posted by Danila at 2:35 AM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


The plot thickens. Nice picture of the kid's pop with Hill. Seriously, check out the spin about loaner, fees, etc.
posted by fixedgear at 4:22 AM on February 23, 2010


From fixedgear's link:

The district contends that the Robbinses failed to pay a required $55 insurance fee, and that, therefore, Blake was barred from taking home a laptop. The school has a pool of "loaners" for students who have not paid the fee or are waiting for a new laptop.

... The lawyer said that Robbins' school laptop had broken and that he took a replacement home "every single day" for a month - with no one at school objecting or reporting it missing.


This is the first the school has offered an explanation of what happened in this case. (The school's explanation seems a bit ad hoc.)

... The order says Robbins will turn over the laptop to a technician who will make a mirror image of its hard drive. Finally!

According to ComputerWorld, the software maker says the theft tracking feature wasn't intended to be used in-house by its clients (though obviously it could be):

To kick off the recovery of a stolen or lost laptop, customers first must file a police report -- not a requirement of LANRev -- and only then contact Absolute, which in turn tracks the location of the missing machine via its IP address when the system goes online ...

Thanks, fixedgear and Skorgu for keeping us updated.
posted by nangar at 6:05 AM on February 23, 2010


A friend of mine linked this technical analysis of the software involved and what the school appeared to be doing with it.
posted by immlass at 7:42 AM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


From fixedgear's link: The district contends that the Robbinses failed to pay a required $55 insurance fee, and that, therefore, Blake was barred from taking home a laptop. The school has a pool of "loaners" for students who have not paid the fee or are waiting for a new laptop.

The fee question was mentioned by U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois in court yesterday, as he tried to craft a compromise between dueling versions on the order, submitted by the two sides' attorneys.

Haltzman said after the hearing that he knew of no problem with fees or permissions. The lawyer said that Robbins' school laptop had broken and that he took a replacement home "every single day" for a month - with no one at school objecting or reporting it missing.

"Now we hear about all these issues," Haltzman said. "He didn't do anything wrong."


I just can't even wrap my head around this nonsense. I haven't said too much about the Robbins family and their case because I think the school district is wrong regardless of the facts of their particular case. But this is just the icing on the very nasty cake.

I absolutely believe the kid's family and their lawyer when they say he was reprimanded over "drugs" based on a remote picture from the webcam. First of all, this is the first time the school has directly acknowledged even activating the remote webcam on Blake Robbins's laptop. Up till now, there's been all this speculation that it's all some mistake on the part of the kid's family or the school vice principal. So now that needs to be laid to rest.

Second, the laptop was never reported stolen and that much is clear now. I knew that anyway, because the school never got law enforcement involved or anything. Now they're trying to find a way to justify taking that picture when their own (already bad) policy is against it. So, it's "stolen" because he didn't pay the $55? Really? Then why take remote pictures of him popping candy/pills/whatever and pull him into the office over that (and you know that couldn't have been the only time they'd taken pictures of him, NOT TO MENTION OTHER STUDENTS who were on somebody's list for whatever reason)? Why not take back the laptop if he wasn't supposed to have it? This is just ridiculous! If anyone falls for this nonsense I swear!!!

Or..and I just had this thought..is the school district still not really saying what happened in this case? Are they just throwing the fee nonpayment out there for others to chew on and put the Robbins family in the wrong somehow, but not offering this up as an explanation for their actions in this case? Maybe hoping it will blow over and be buried and everyone will think they just showed some poor judgment with the whole "theft tracker" thing but they had good intentions those spoiled rich kids blah blah blah.

I can't find any way for the school district to be even a little bit in the right here.
posted by Danila at 7:56 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


More detail about the temporary restraining order from Jeff Schreiber. (pdf)
posted by nangar at 8:16 AM on February 23, 2010


Yes, Danila, that was a completely lame explanation. It sounds like something they dreamed up over the weekend.

Kids were supposed to pay a $55 insurance fee on the laptops they were issued, and then if they turned the laptop in for repairs and were given a replacement loaner laptop, they were supposed to pay another $55 insurance fee? Isn't that what the insurance fee was supposed to cover in the first place? And when the kid took the loaner laptop home with him, they needed to use theft tracking software to confirm that, yes, he had taken it home with him? Wasn't the software supposed to be used if the laptop was actually missing and they actually didn't know where it was? Not to mention that the kid in this case was apparently given a loaner laptop in Oct. and still had it as of yesterday, despite the fact that the school's lawyers announced yesterday that it's been "missing" for three months because his parents were supposed to have paid a second insurance fee in Oct. and they "located" it in Nov. by taking a picture of him. Huh?

Before the school offered this explanation, it was possible to think of plausible explanations of how the school might have obtained the incriminating photo without doing anything wrong. Now this is getting increasingly difficult. mrbarrett.com's explanation seemed perfectly reasonable, but school's statements yesterday ruled this out.

The information that Stryde Hax pulled together doesn't help either.

I'm not really surprised that the school's lawyers agreed to a restraining order prohibiting their clients from making any further statement about the case without approval.
posted by nangar at 10:03 AM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, knowing first hand how government laptop loaner programs work (I worked in IT here when this happened), I can just barely see a situation where the correct paperwork wasn't filled out or was lost, and they did a laptop inventory and discovered one was unaccounted for.
posted by empath at 10:42 AM on February 23, 2010


There is something odd about people who live in a $775,000 house who refused to pay $55 so their kid could have a laptop to take home. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say there is some 'it's the principle, not the money' at least with respect to the parents. He was on video with a LMSD laptop (bar coded asset tag visible under Apple logo) last Friday, in his home.
posted by fixedgear at 11:33 AM on February 23, 2010


A friend of mine linked this technical analysis of the software involved and what the school appeared to be doing with it.

Thanks for that analysis. Very thorough and interesting indeed.
posted by ericb at 11:48 AM on February 23, 2010


I'm missing the part where they "refused" to pay it. I see references to them not having paid it, but is it possible that they paid it and the school misfiled the paperwork?
posted by rtha at 12:03 PM on February 23, 2010


The district contends that the Robbinses failed to pay a required $55 insurance fee, and that, therefore, Blake was barred from taking home a laptop.
I apologize if I mis-characterized what the article said. Sure, missing paperwork is a possibility.

Absolute Software will update its LANRev to disable camera feature. Too late?
posted by fixedgear at 12:32 PM on February 23, 2010


"Too late?"

And wasted effort regardless.
posted by Mitheral at 1:31 PM on February 23, 2010


Sorry, borked the link to Computer World. Corrected link.
posted by fixedgear at 1:46 PM on February 23, 2010


L. Merion spying case figure: I did not snoop on kids I'll post a link to a video as soon as I did one, it was pretty wild. I imagine she is taking a ton of shit from /b/ tards right about now, she's claiming harassment.
posted by fixedgear at 9:19 AM on February 24, 2010


I have never...
posted by fixedgear at 10:11 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can't believe I missed the metafilter thread on this. Ah well. Bruce Schneier just linked to this technical investigation. I'd heard the case mentioned before, although the fact that the Administrator who was doing this was (essentially) bragging about it online was new. And you certainly don't need to report the laptop stolen to use it.

Plus I found out what the 'innapropriate behavior' was. Eating candy (Mike 'n' Ikes) mistaken for pills by war on drugs hysterics.

Here's a clip of the IT admin (Mike Perbix) actually talking about the camera spying
posted by delmoi at 3:07 AM on February 25, 2010


A much more likely scenario is that the kid took a picture of himself with the webcam, doing something stupid/illegal and the school found that picture on the computer's HD and now wants to discipline him for the infraction. And instead of owning up to his misbehavior, he and his parents decide to sue based on a lot of assumptions about what the management software can and cannot do.

Well, that turned out to be helariously wrong.
posted by delmoi at 3:11 AM on February 25, 2010


Just finished reading the thread..
Just think, these web cameras could have captured evidence of child abuse, even sex abuse! -- BigSky
More like self-abuse.
Legally ? Yep - it's yours after all. -- Pogo_Fuzzybutt
Also, the argument that a private actor surreptitiously could turn on a webcam or (especially) a microphone on a machine that they had loaned to someone because it's their property is probably wrong, since there are laws in general against filming or recording someone without their knowledge.

Also, the people accusing this kid of stealing a laptop somehow? Pretty ridiculous.
posted by delmoi at 4:06 AM on February 25, 2010


Laptop family is no stranger to legal disputes.

Apparently they owed $30,000 to the electric/gas company, for the bill for their $1m house.
posted by carter at 6:02 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm still against spying on kids, and LMSD fucked up big time. But these are really bad poster people.
posted by fixedgear at 6:35 AM on February 25, 2010


Also, the attorney who is now representing them, Mark Haltzman, himself took the Robbinses to court in 2002. It doesn't say what for. Kind of has a whiff of Balloon Boy about it.
posted by carter at 8:01 AM on February 25, 2010


Contradictions in Lower Merion Web-cam case.
posted by ericb at 8:44 AM on February 25, 2010


Delmoi, not so helariously (sic) wrong, when you look at the information available at the time. I'm certainly not embarrassed to say that my opinion has changed a bit since my initial post. I still think LMSD isn't nearly as guilty as they're made out to be by the press (and you), but nor are they completely innocent. Also, just because Michael Prebix expresses excitement about a perfectly legitimate theft-tracking mechanism doesn't mean that it equates to guilt or abuse. I've plenty of friends who love guns and express their excitement for said guns, but that certainly doesn't mean they go into a mall to shoot it up.

This case reeks of bullshit and questionable behavior (on all sides). I still doubt that LMSD was actually truly spying on their student body (pun intended)....at least I really hope that that's the case. And if it turns out that they were (outside of trying to track a missing or stolen laptop), then clearly there should legal consequences. The "Mike & Ike's candy" angle just smacks of banal misdirection and doesn't ring true for me.

Until we know more, I'm giving both sides the benefit of the doubt, despite the muddying of the waters by the mainstream media of all of the involved parties. This is certainly more than what most people (so it seems to me) are allowing for, having already appeared to act as judge, jury, and exccutioner based on limited information and sensationalistic media spin.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 8:48 AM on February 25, 2010


Pa. school spying case: What's the law?
"A Philadelphia-area attorney who specializes in employer-employee law thinks the lawsuit might not be a slam-dunk for the Robbins family."
posted by ericb at 8:53 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


The more I read the more nothing changes: schools can't surreptitiously plant monitoring programs in the homes of students, even if those programs are attached to school property. They can't place audio bugs in textbooks and they can't place cameras rigged to send back pictures into your home. If it's a matter of law everything I read makes this a violation of the fourth amendment. But let's just say I don't know much about the law. It's just wrong anyway. My gut tells me this can't be legal but what do I know.

Regardless, I am pretty much in disagreement with mrbarrett.com throughout the entire thread. I don't think there's any justification for what the school has admitted to doing.
posted by Danila at 5:48 PM on February 25, 2010


In other surveillance news: Military Monitored Planned Parenthood, Supremacists
posted by homunculus at 8:56 AM on February 26, 2010


Frontline/WGBH ran a show about Digital Natives Nation earlier this month.

School Administrator Boasts About Spying On Students Using Laptop Webcams.
posted by ericb at 2:15 PM on February 26, 2010


You really should've mentioned that this is a completely different school district in the Bronx, NY.
posted by scalefree at 2:20 PM on February 26, 2010


Well, you read the article and realized that it was a different incident. Right? A+ for reading comprehension.

The comment also refers to toxic's previous comment (and, for that matter, sweetmarie's comment) mentioned above regarding the PBS program 'Digital Nation.'
posted by ericb at 2:33 PM on February 26, 2010


Delmoi, not so helariously (sic) wrong, when you look at the information available at the time.

Well, it was wrong, and hilariously so. But also, it wasn't based on the "information available" but only the information you didn't dismiss, and you assumed all kinds of things about the kid and his family, basically accusing him of "doing something, and taking a picture, and wanting to get out of trouble". Basically casting aspersions on the kid because you didn't want to believe that the school was in the wrong.

The only basis for your assumption was the kid was a liar and had actually done something inappropriate.

This case reeks of bullshit and questionable behavior (on all sides).

Huh? What questionable behavior has the kid or his family engaged in here? Again you're casting aspersions on innocent people here. As far as I can tell, the kid and his family have done nothing wrong at all here.
posted by delmoi at 5:05 PM on February 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Parents opposed to suit organize.
posted by fixedgear at 2:54 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Two tech workers sidelined in Web-cam case.
posted by fixedgear at 5:31 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


He said that no one in the 26-member technology department was using the system for any reason other than to locate missing MacBooks.

"There were enough policies in place that no one was running amok with these systems," Neff said, but no one in the district's administration office made those policies official.

"Unfortunately, I don't think they were written policies that were adopted by administrators," Neff said.


So what was it, a "we will never ever spy no matter how tempting" gentleman's agreement?

I still find it hard to believe that the school district was so lackadaisical in its implementation of the laptop program. First they didn't bother to inform the parents, not even in the small print of the laptop usage policy (undoubtedly the focus was on what the kids and parents had to do, and not the school's responsibility). They didn't even take the time to develop internal written policies on the usage of the monitoring program or anything?

From the start, I think my attitude toward this case has been colored by my belief that schools rarely treat children as human beings. The students are never viewed as the consumers (even though it is their education). I never had trouble believing that a school would spy on students since they've been doing it for a very long time within the school walls and out to the parking lot, they'll take it as far as they can take it. And it's all for the good because everyone knows teenagers are just itching to ruin everything if you give them an inch. But I thought they'd cover their tracks more. I can't forget that this all started because a vice principal felt the right to punish a student for what he did at home, something I find already suspect without the photo spying.

It also doesn't surprise me that so many of the parents are sticking up for the school and vilifying the Robbins family (although the student body doesn't appear to be quite so forgiving, after all, they were the ones with their rights violated...but kids have no rights, do they). When it comes to policing teenagers, you can never go too far.
posted by Danila at 11:00 PM on March 5, 2010


Now having said my little rant about schools, I was heartened to read that at least some school administrators have some sense:

The Web-cam controversy "really is surprising; I didn't even know a computer has the ability to do that," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

"Some alarm should have gone off that there is potential" for problems, he said. "I would say most school districts weren't aware that laptops have that capability.

"Administrators are asking their tech people about the laptop cameras," Domenech said. "We're talking about devices that can send visual images, and that should raise concerns. Students and parents should have been made aware."


I know right??

In the Bergen County district, which has 2,100 students in two high schools, superintendent Tantillo said the schools "don't have any business checking on what someone is doing in their private time.

Makes sense to me...

In Maine, where 70,000 laptops are deployed, Jeff Mao and his staff at the state Department of Education discussed the risks of the Web cam with his staff, saw the potential problems, and rejected it...."Everything is about risk - the risk of losing a device vs. the disaster that can occur," he said. "I would rather lose a computer than hurt a child."

Preach.
posted by Danila at 11:13 PM on March 5, 2010


"So what was it, a 'we will never ever spy no matter how tempting' gentleman's agreement?"

Danila it works that way in every IT department. The people in IT by the nature of their jobs have access to confidential information. A written policy specifically limiting their actions in any potentially compromising situation would probably run to a couple hundred thousand words. And like it was discussed up thread while the IT department was using a separate program to access the cameras, remote access software built into operating system would have allowed them to do so with the tools supplied by Apple.

The theft recovery program may have been poorly thought out (IMO it's really just the non-notification aspect of it. The IT department should have required the student who was reporting their laptop stolen/missing physical presence that way their would be no chance of catching images of them on the missing machine and the thieves have no expectation of privacy ) but the remote access capabilities of the laptops are a fact of life of any corporate lender. They are in place to allow IT to do their job in the same way your land lord (if you rent) has a key to your house. The only way the students can avoid it totally would be to supply their own equipment (and the thousands of dollars worth of software installed on it).
posted by Mitheral at 6:55 AM on March 6, 2010


No, supplying their own equipment was prohibited.
posted by fixedgear at 6:57 AM on March 6, 2010


Police get Webcam pictures in school spy case
posted by fixedgear at 2:43 PM on March 7, 2010


Both sides agree to delay in L. Merion computer case
posted by fixedgear at 2:46 AM on March 11, 2010


How obscure security makes school suck
posted by homunculus at 11:42 AM on March 11, 2010


Specter schedules hearings
posted by fixedgear at 6:02 AM on March 17, 2010


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