Back in February I put up a post on a case being pressed in Philadelphia where students were being spied upon by the local school district who used a surveillance program installed – without notice – on the laptops issued to all HS students in the district. The school district was able to remotely activate the built-in cameras in the laptops and they were accused of taking pictures of students in their homes. The suit was brought after a student was confronted for “improper behavior” at home and shown a picture that had been taken of him via the laptop camera. At the time, the school district denied using the software for that purpose, contending that they only used it in an effort to locate stolen or misplaced laptops.
News is now coming that the school district has settled 2 of the suits brought in this regard – for $610,000 – and that a more important admission was made:
A suburban Philadelphia school district, which admitted earlier this year to capturing 56,000 secret webcam photos and screenshots on school-issued laptops, has agreed to pay $610,000 in settlements.
The district faced two suits with Harriton High School student Blake Robbins, and a second student who filed suit, Jalil Hassan. Evidence revealed that Robbins was photographed 400 times in a two-week period – sometimes as he slept in his bedroom, according to his lawyer, Mark Haltzman.
The Lower Merion School District says it took the photos in an attempt to locate missing computers. A district review found that a remote tracking program was sometimes left on inadvertently for months after laptops were located.
Emphasis mine. I find it completely unbelievable that a system could capture over 50,000 images and the administrators of the system would not know that. Their assertion that they only used the software to locate stolen laptops was, frankly, a lie. And even if they were ignoring this fact, there is absolutely no way the vice principal who thought it was appropriate to haul a student in to her office for something that happened at the student’s home – and clearly outside the scope of the school’s authority – wouldn’t have known the picture taken had nothing to do with a stolen laptop. Witness the fact that this subject never came up when she was confronting the student about “improper behavior.” (Which, by the way, amounted to the student eating a Mike and Ike jelly bean which the school officials mistook for drugs.)
Lesson to the school district: your authority does not extend as far as your eyes can see and you need to keep better control of your contractors and employees. Lesson to the students and parents: cover the cameras on those laptops with a good piece of opaque cardboard. I would also recommend plugging in a disabled microphone jack into the laptop’s audio port so they can’t get funny with any conversations going on in your house, either.