On November 11 last year, Blake Robbins, a 15-year-old student at Harriton High School, in a suburb of Philadelphia, was hauled into the assistant principal Lindy Matsko’s office, shown a photograph taken on the laptop in his home and disciplined for “improper behavior.”
Some background: Last fall, Lower Merion School District provided 2,300 high school students with Mac laptops in what its superintendent, Christopher McGinley, described as an effort to establish a “mobile 21st-century learning environment.” The scheme was funded with $720,000 in state grants and other sources. The students were not allowed to install video games and other software, and were barred from “commercial, illegal, unethical and inappropriate” use. What Blake and his parents did not know is that the school was able to access the webcam on Blake’s laptop remotely at any time.
Now Blake’s parents are suing their son’s school, the school district, its board of directors and the superintendent. Michael and Holly Robbins are alleging that the district unlawfully used its ability to access a webcam remotely on their son’s district-issued laptop computer to spy on him while he was at home and unaware that he was being observed. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania, also includes a class action on behalf of every high school student in the district.
And in a dramatic move late yesterday, federal prosecutors and the FBI said they would join the probe into whether the Lower Merion School District did indeed spy on its students using remotely-controlled laptops. The suit claims a violation of the privacy and civil rights of the students and their families and accuses officials of violating electronic communications laws by spying on them through “indiscriminate use of an ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop.” According to the district, the webcams were installed to prevent theft of the laptops which are issued to every student. The district’s technology department activated tracking software in the webcams on 42 laptops reported lost or stolen during the current school year, the district said.
The case raises many questions: Why were parents and students not explictly told about the built-in security feature that could take over the laptop and see whatever was in the webcam’s field of vision? Why did the “acceptable-use” agreement that families were required to sign in order to allow the student to take the laptop home not explicity state the security feature that enabled the school to spy on its students? Doug Young, a spokesman for the Lower Merion School District, termed that “a mistake.”
And a much bigger question: Why would any adminstrator want to spy on a 15-year-old student? In answer to this question, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs, saying that it believes the case is unique and raises questions of whether the school district violated the boy’s rights to privacy and against unreasonable seizure.
Federal prosecutors said today that they will not file charges against the district or its employees, according to an Associated Press report. Investigators found no evidence of criminal intent by those who activated the feature and/or reviewed the images.
On Tuesday, August 17, the FBI and federal prosecutors announced that they could not prove any criminal wrongdoing by Lower Merion School District.
“We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent,” declared U.S. Attorney Zane D. Memeger.
While Blake Robbins alleged the district photographed him 400 times in a 15-day period last fall, sometimes as he slept or was half-dressed, district officials said their technology staff only activated the remote tracking system to locate laptops that had been reported lost or stolen. This program took images every 15 minutes, usually capturing the webcam photo of the user and a screen shot at the same time.
However, even though Robbins maintains that he never reported his laptop missing or stolen, no criminal charges will be filed in this case.
Today, the district announced new policies for its One-to-One laptop program. In a statement, the district explained the new policies and emphasized how it would be allowed to activate the tracking feature in the future. The district wrote (with bold emphasis coming from the district):
The most important changes to the policy concern theft tracking, remote access and the privacy of students’ files on District laptops. The School District will only access a student’s computer with the explicit written authority from parents/guardians and students. School personnel will only access a student’s laptop remotely to resolve a technical problem only if the student formally gives the district permission to do so. If the student chooses, he or she can decline the remote access and take the laptop directly to the school’s IT center for repair. Theft tracking software will only be activated if a student and parent/guardian file a police report and provide a signed “remote file access consent” form and a signed incident report to the principal verifying that a laptop has been lost or stolen. Theft tracking software would never have the capability of capturing screen shots, audio, video and on-screen text.
It’s somewhat disappointing that federal prosecutors aren’t holding someone responsible for this blatant stomping of personal privacy rights – not only of students, but also members of their families who had no idea that district officials were watching them at home. Maybe the whole “we didn’t mean to” argument would work if it were only one or two students affected or a dozen or so images accidentally had been captured. But we’re talking 56,000 images here.
Fifty-six thousand images. How is that an accident?
In an unprecedented proliferation of public spying, even the government is casting its watchful eye on millions of ordinary Americans through largely unregulated surveillance cameras trained on public spaces throughout the nation.
A Scripps Howard News Service tally found that at least 200 towns and cities in 37 states now employ video cameras – or are in the process of doing so – to watch sidewalks, parks, schools, buses, buildings and similar community locales. That number excludes the approximately 110 other municipalities that use traffic cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners.
If you ever get a computer from School you need to do a CLEAN format!
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