IN the last couple of days a case has been reported wherein a Philadelphia school district is being sued by the family of one of its students for allegedly violating the privacy of the family in their home. The school district issues laptop computers to some of the students yet neglected to advise the families that the school could remotely activate the camera in the laptop at any time. From the Fox News story on the matter:
Blake Robbins and his 18-year-old sister both attend Harriton High School and were among the 2,300 students in the district to receive the Apple laptops. All students and their parents had to sign a “memorandum of understanding” to take the laptops home with wording that explained the rules and regulations that came along with the computers. The paperwork did not include the disclosure that the school district had the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcams at any time, without student’s permission.
Last November, Blake Robbins was called to the office by the vice principal to talk about what she called his “improper behavior” at home. Vice Principal Lindy Matsko allegedly cited as evidence a photograph taken with the computer’s webcam that had been activated in Blake’s bedroom. Robbins claims that the Matsko accused him of selling drugs when she saw him holding up what she believed to be pills. The 15-year-old says he was simply holding his favorite candy, “Mike And Ikes,” which are small oblong, chewy jelly beans.
The facts of the case aren’t all in and the school district denies that it turns on the cameras for any reason other than when the laptops are reported stolen or lost. Of course, they failed to inform the families of this “feature” and have now disabled the cameras while this case is under review.
This is something that folks should be aware of as cameras have become ubiquitous on laptops now. If they come with a cover, close them when the cam’s not in use. If they don’t, I would consider using a piece of paper and tape to cover them, frankly, unless you know your network is actively blocking incoming requests to actuate services on your gear. Of course, in this case, the laptop likely had software on it that “phoned home” to some command management console at the school to receive commands. Physically blocking the camera is really the only way to be sure someone’s not taking a picture of you.
The school had better be able to show some serious control over this feature. If the cameras could be activated by any school employee and no log of that activation was kept, it’s going to be very hard for them to make the case that they weren’t opening up peepholes in peoples’ homes. As this case moves forward I’ll write more when more is known.