School used student laptop webcams to spy on them at school and home

By Cory Doctorow at 11:49 PM February 17, 2010

According to the filings in Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA) et al, the laptops issued to high-school students in the well-heeled Philly suburb have webcams that can be covertly activated by the schools' administrators, who have used this facility to spy on students and even their families. The issue came to light when the Robbins's child was disciplined for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence. The suit is a class action, brought on behalf of all students issued with these machines.

If true, these allegations are about as creepy as they come. I don't know about you, but I often have the laptop in the room while I'm getting dressed, having private discussions with my family, and so on. The idea that a school district would not only spy on its students' clickstreams and emails (bad enough), but also use these machines as AV bugs is purely horrifying.

Schools are in an absolute panic about kids divulging too much online, worried about pedos and marketers and embarrassing photos that will haunt you when you run for office or apply for a job in 10 years. They tell kids to treat their personal details as though they were precious.

But when schools take that personal information, indiscriminately invading privacy (and, of course, punishing students who use proxies and other privacy tools to avoid official surveillance), they send a much more powerful message: your privacy is worthless and you shouldn't try to protect it.

Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (PDF) (Thanks, Roland!)

(Image: IMG_6395, a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike image from bionicteaching's photostream)


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If they're recording images of underage children without parental consent, couldn't that be considered child pornography?

Things like this are incredibly disturbing to me and should be to everyone.

To the crowd who are of the "I don't have anything to hide so I'm not concerned about privacy protection" - you know that laptop sitting on the desk in your 14yo daughter's bedroom? Umm, yeah, the webcam is controlled by a government funded organization that might be recording her next time she's getting undressed.

Not concerned about privacy? Nothing to hide?

Digital Nation, the documentary/project that Douglas Ruskoff was/is a big part of, explored a similar issue. They showed a school (middle or high school) that really embraced laptops and new media as part of the learning process. It was the job of a staff member to spend a couple hours each day monitoring what the students were doing - working, surfing, etc. The staff member who was monitoring showed how he could remotely snap a photo when a student was using Photobooth during class, and how this usually caused them to get back to work.

But that was at school with laptops presumably provided by the school, so while it still feels a bit odd to me, I think there's a good argument for the practice in that environment.

But to extend that to the students' homes? That's terrible. And really creepy.

I hope it wasn't the same school that they showed in Digital Nation, because I kinda liked their style.

Also: the documentary and ongoing discussion over at the Digital Nation page of the PBS site is great. You should check it out if you haven't.


Format C, its the only way to be sure.

It's hard to know what to say about this. It utterly dumbfounds me.

I mean the school had to decide this was something they should do, indicating more than one person made this decision. At the very least, one person made this decision then a lot of other people knew about it and didn't cry out in outrage. Somehow it was kept a secret, until this Vice Principal character decided a students behaviour warranted disciplinary action. Outing the whole program.

I mean, how screwed are the heads of the people that decided this was a good idea? How utterly stupid is this vice principal thinking it wouldn't bring a lawsuit and about the worst negative publicity you could imagine on the school. How pathetically weak were the people who knew about this, disagreed and still kept their mouths shut? Everything about this is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

holly shit that's so not ok

It's weird to hear all these older people talk about how kids are growing up wrong because you can't spank kids anymore in school. They talk about how teachers and administrators are so afraid of lawsuits that they can't hug an emotionally upset kid or even really defend themselves if the kid gets violent...

And then there are all these contrasting stories of legit lawsuits like this one and absurd zero tolerance drug policies and strip searches in the bathroom over students having OTC headache medicine.

School admins should stay off my kid's webcam, stay out of my kid's Facebook comments, and stick to their actual jobs.

I saw this on Digital Nation, it seems more harmless than it actually is. What they can do is look at what the kids are doing on the school laptops while they're in class, when they're supposed to be learning. They find kids regularly go into the application to goof off in class. Obviously though if they're taking these laptops home the technology shouldn't work there, and administrators doing this should know they're obviously crossing a line, spying on kids outside of school. That's certainly like peeping tom like behavior, don't we put people in jail for that?

The average secondary school kid masturbates fairly regularly, and I'm sure plenty of them would use the internet to find porn given the opportunity. Hey, my school just gave me this awesome new laptop, I can use that!

Let's get the child porn charges a-rolling.

I don't think it would be considered child pornography unless the images were intentionally used for a sexual purpose; there is no indication, at least from here, that that was the case.

Putty. Use putty. I've done that ever since I noticed (many many years ago) the contextual menu (right-click) on flash content: when I saw "do you authorize Adobe to access your webcam" I realized this was possible. So I cover the webcam with tape or putty, the mic too, and on my desktop PC's I don't have any of those connected permanently.

And that was BEFORE all those terrifying laws our governments are imposing on us today (I live in France): they are, for the sake of copyright protection or war on pedopornography, granting themselves the right, or worse, imposing on us by law, to install what they call "protection software" (read "surveillance software" aka spyware) on all of your computers.

In less than months, governments will be able to turn on your cam and mic and watch you.

It's a government's dream come true.

Of course, the whole "copyright" thing or "pedopornographic threat" is just bullshit. Copyright is a private matter concerning a non-strategic industry, of a ridiculously low financial impact on global economy compared to many other sectors that are doing much worse, in fact the media industry is doing just fine and don't need that protection of INSANE proportions, they just have to adjust their business model to a changing market, that's exactly the job all those overpaid execs we're hired for in the first place; and pedopornography is marginal, terrifyingly horrible for those poor kids, but fortunately marginal. On behalf of those matters, we are seeing our civil right severely limited??? No, that's nonsense.

Power is to those who control the communication channels, and can survey the crowd. That's the one and only reason for all this.

Have a laptop? Take it apart, locate the mic and cam, insert a physical switch, or use putty.


Format your hard drive and then send it to me. I'll send you back 90% of everything that was ever on that drive.

All sarcasam aside, I do see your point. Not having a device connected to any network would be the only way to prevent broadcasting data from your home.

@Zergonapal: Or you know, you could just put a piece of electrician's tape over the webcam lens (or an adhesive bandage, if you're worried about keeping the webcam lens free of tape residue so you can actually use the thing when you choose to).

Quicker, easier, verifiable at a glance, reversible in an instant, and less likely to cause headaches from having to deal with the institution that issued you the hardware, be it a school as in the case above, an employer, or your cellphone provider.

I can just imagine the following being said: "No wonder you can't connect to the school network; someone's formatted this thing and it no longer has our standardized minimum software load on it."

A few days ago, I caught a PBS Frontline: digital nation piece (rebroadcast from ~6 months ago) which showed the assistant principal remotely activating a webcam on a student's school-provided laptop (during school hours).

Skip to 4:39 if you're impatient, the section is called "Assistant Principal Dan Ackerman can remotely monitor the students' laptops for inappropriate use."

Bronx IS 339. Shh, don't tell them to sue.

"Big Brother is watching you." But, hey, it's for your own good!

DBAN. When you want to be really sure.

Or boot from Knoppix and cat /dev/zero > dev/sda. Modern disks have so high recording density that the old multiple-overwrite recovery techniques from the age of MFM do not apply anymore. Besides, a school does not possess a magnetic microscope anyway.

Or just boot from said Knoppix (or other live CD) and keep the disk intact. You get a functional computer, and school gets no way to snoop as their software uselessly sleeps on the unused, unbooted disk, as a bonus without leaving any logs.

Another possibility: honeypot.

Hardware modification of the camera circuit, so a LED is lit when the device is powered up (it may be kept off to save batteries when not in use). When the LED lights up without authorization, we know something is wrong and worth investigating.

Similar for audio, though an USB soundcard would work better here.

If the device stays on all the time, check the chip's pins with a scope, find which signals correspond with activity, and connect the suitable ones to LEDs (or maybe piezo buzzers).

Then when something unusual happens, do conventional network forensics on the device itself, or (better) on your firewall. Check what data flow where, use IP addresses to discover who is pulling the strings.

As an added bonus, the possibility to be easily outed, without having any chance of knowing so, could act as a deterrent to wannabe spies.

Well I was kinda misquoting the phrase from Aliens as a comment on the fact you don't really know what is on a computer someone just hands to you.
That its best to start with a clean slate. I guess I was being to subtle, sorry :D
That aside it was a pretty terrible idea to spy on kids in their own home, if you abuse the trust invested in you then you lose all the respect of your authority.

@Shaddack Thanks for the DBAN link. That'll come in useful for me. I have several small HDs around that I want to recycle into storage for home file server.

Should have gone with: Nuke the hard drive. It's the only way to be sure.

#1: certainly in my country (UK) there is nothing to stop anybody taking an image of a person without their permission (unless of course the police arbitrarily decide that it may be used for terrorism purposes). I don't believe a clothed image of a child would be considered child pornography, any more than a normal clothed image of an adult would be considered adult pornography. Schools who ban photos of clothed children on child pornography grounds (such as videoing school plays) are rather missing the point, really. I suspect anybody who gets their rocks off looking at clothed children isn't going to bother going to the effort of infiltrating a school play.

Man, reading this I'm having Little Brother flashbacks. Guess reality is worse then fiction after all, if this is true.

Well, here's me hoping that the school gets ripped a new one in court.

"Improper behaviour in his home" ? How can a school even discipline a child for something that did not happen on school ground ?

What kind of school does that ? And why ? They feel they don't have enough work watching these kids during school time ?

On some level I've made my peace with the fact that this kind of technological intrusion into my privacy WILL happen, more and more frequently, as a consequence of accepting the benefits of that technology.

What I CAN'T deal with is the idea that this kind of intrusion can be pulled off by people as stupid as this vice-principal, who trotted out the top-secret spy-cam footage in some two-bit student discipline matter? Christ, you'd have to think twice about letting the existence of that video be known even if it recorded someone being murdered!

This is like riddling the Soviet Embassy with a thousand different bugs during the Cold War, then using them to publicly shame their ambassador for littering.

those responsible will not see much in the way of punishment - these are government employees, after all.

people will go on paid leave, and the matter settled out of court. a pittance will be doled out, and the ubiquity of privacy invasion will continue unhindered.

we've over legislated ourselves into a corner, and soon you will be punished for every infraction, no matter how technical. your car will be tracked and you'll receive a bill every month for every mile an hour you sped, every stop sign you cali rolled through.

talk of drastic measures to alter our government will be classified as conspiracy, and you will be abducted, stripped of your rights, and thrown in a foreign prison for being a terrorist.

it'll take a while - 20 or 30 more years - but don't worry, we'll get there.

just FYI, in the US, even photos of clothed children in 'sexually suggestive' poses and/or with emphasis on the genital area can be considered child porn, and you can be prosecuted for it.

Possession of child porn under US federal law is a strict liability offense, similar to drug charges. The government doesn't need to prove you intended to distribute it, etc. to convict you of a felony and send you to prison. See this link from NCMEC:

If this program did capture images of children at home in any stage of undress -- even unintentionally -- the people responsible face criminal charges as well as potentially catastrophic financial liability. Of course given that this was a public school, guess who ultimately will pay the millions of dollars in attorneys's fees and settlement costs as a result of this stunningly idiotic, police-state policy? Taxpayers. Unbelievable.

Pennsylvania has a 2 person consent wiretap / recording law... Unless the parents signed a consent form that allowed the monitoring / recording this is probably a felony as well...

Forget the lawsuit (well, I don't actually mean forget the lawsuit. By all means sue the crap out of them). I want someone in jail for this. These are criminal violations, not just civil ones. I want the FBI and the Pennsylvania state police on the case here.

This scares me to no end. My 8th grade son's school issues them laptops in the 7th and 8th grades, and he and we sign off on their "acceptable use policy" (which he has breached several times but that's another issue...). It now frightens me to think that they had the opportunity to do this for the last couple of years and it didn't even occur to me. Granted I don't think any of them there - besides the IT teacher - knows this is possible either, but I digress.... I am printing this right now and bringing it to their attention, and taking the suggestions above to heart. Oooh, I'm not happy about this... driving to school now...

Please keep us up to date, I would like to know the school board's reaction.

@thermidorthelobster: In the UK, taking a photo of someone is illegal if they have a 'reasonable expectation of privacy,' which at home they definitely do. And if it's in the child's bedroom, there's a good chance the school would have had access to footage of them not fully clothed. Which makes this thing far, FAR too creepy. The whole lot of them should be fired, jailed and never allowed near children again.

Total Information Awareness Lite, for ages 6 and up!

Ew ew ew ew ew ew ew. That is wrong and creepy, and ew. I really wish MacBooks and other laptops with built-in webcams had a physical switch to deactivate them. As if this wasn't enough of a reason to convince a company to add it to the feature list.

I also really hope the principals and other administrators involved in this decision to spy on students lose their jobs. And those of you with school-issued laptops, this might be a good time to go ahead and re-format those hard drives and install something else, possibly linux?

Please keep us updated on this case Boing Boing!

I often wonder, do these mythical people with nothing to hide never close their curtains at night? Never close their bathroom doors, and have clear glass on their bathroom windows? Have never kept a diary?

I'm sure there was some legalese buried in the user agreement that gives them enough wiggle room in a lawsuit. GAFFER'S TAPE!

I’m trying to understand. Did they actually activate a webcam and watch a live feed? Or did they search the drive once back at school and see some captures taken at home?

I know this is sci-fi creepy, but kids do act horribly sometimes: imagine the capture is of the kid abusing a mentally challenged schoolmate? Or cutting his own arms with razor blades? If an admin finds evidence of this, should he let it go because of privacy concerns? (and the answer to that might very well be “maybe” if it serves a larger principle)

I just wonder what home offense would even be of interest to a school- Criminal? Using the webcam for cyber-bullying or threatening to rape another student?

"If an admin finds evidence of this, should he let it go because of privacy concerns?"
Admin shouldn't have access to this info in the first place. We are not talking about somebody accidentally stumbling upon a picture. We are talking about a systematic, intentional invasion of privacy.

"I just wonder what home offense would even be of interest to a school- Criminal? Using the webcam for cyber-bullying or threatening to rape another student?"
This is primarily of concern to the police, not the school, and even the police can't wiretap you without a court warrant (and I don't know about the American system, but in my country they can get the warrant only for investigations of a strictly limited list of gravest felonies, such as drug trafficking and terrorism.) The idea that a school should be able to invade your privacy more easily then a public security body is preposterous.

Absolutely despicable arrogance. If these allegations are true:

1. The school should be sued into bankruptcy.

2. The administrators who made the decision to spy on children should have webcams installed in every room of their homes, and be put online for the entire world to see -- for the rest of their natural lives.

Hopefully the end result of this will be a bunch of new registered sex offenders.

I'm trying to envision a scenario in which the school's actions are even remotely defensible. So far, the closest I've been able to get goes like this:

The school's acceptable use policy requires the parents/kid to agree "I promise not to do anything illegal with this computer."

All webcam captures are stored to be examined later for compliance.

The kid in question deliberately took a naughty/illegal webcam pic, and due to either apathy or ignorance, didn't clean up after himself.

This is still really shaky, and begs the question of why the webcam captures outside of the school day are being recorded at all, but it's the closest I've been able to get to a defense for the school's action.

I've been reading this site for a while now and haven't felt the need to comment, now I do. This article does cause flashbacks to Little Brother, and Big Brother as well. I think we also need to ask ourselves if we're creating a generation without the expectation of privacy, start exposing children to constant electronic monitoring at a young age and they'll grow up expecting that to be the norm. This is disgusting and blatantly wrong, but do the kids even realize that this should never have occurred in the first place?

Having been a school IT manager for years I find the fact that you would be able to enable a webcam on a specific machine outside of schools network a little far fetched unless you had some pretty elaborate software or pretty serious intent (Like a warrant).
While you're on campus and on the campus network your machine is given a specific id (ip address) and we can look at what your doing all day long (but not necessarily through the webcam). As soon as you go home and plug in your machine and go online it's given another unique id from your service provider and unless we knew that exact id we wouldn't be able to access your machine. If this actually went down while they were at home it's beyond criminal. So I'd like to know how they did this.


How do you know the IT teacher hasn't been the one doing illicit monitoring?

The "acceptable use policy" you had to sign probably gives them similar rights. Distribute this article to all the parents at the school.... make print outs. Even if it is not being abused now, you need to make sure that continues. (And buy putty.)
This type of thing is a horrible invasion of privacy already, when government officials believe they have the right to do this. The next step, and you KNOW it is going to be happening, is the undiscovered pedophile using this technology without "official" sanction.

This is so bad.

And I grouse about my kid's High School outlawing even opening a cel phone in school because the school is so techno-phobic (so students can't use the cel phone pda features like calendering etc.)

This is worse. Much MUCH worse. Is that a death penalty state I wonder?

Absolutely. Just look into some of the recent "sexting" cases brought by overzealous prosecutors who don't understand the spirit of the laws they are over-enforcing.

That said, I sincerely hope that images of children in various states of dress *are* found on school servers during discovery as the only fitting punishment for this abominable, blatant, creepy, ill-conceived, intentional invasion of privacy is jail time for any school official who's name appears on any related communiqué.

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