UPDATE: it looks like this case has been settled, Pennsylvania school settles laptop webcam spying suits for $610,000 -but- Less than a third of that will go to the students. “A total of $185,000 will be put in trust for the students. Their lawyer will receive $425,000.”
Today fak3r from fak3r.com and Matt from Obtuseview.com are working together to bring you a multi-perspective piece on internet security. Rarely are team-ups like this seen except in the pages of “Marvel Team-Ups” or “a very Special Episodes of Diff’rnt Strokes.”
So the Pennsylvania school using webcams on district provided laptops to spy on its students story just gets more and more bizarre. The parents of one of kids is (rightfully) suing the school, “…alleging the district unlawfully used its ability to access a webcam remotely on their son’s district-issued laptop computer [...] it watched him through his laptop’s webcam while he was at home and unaware he was being observed” This is apparently proven when the school “caught” the student engaging in “improper behavior” in his home, via a webcam image. Meanwhile the school claims it had the ability to observe images via the webcam, but that it would only be used if the laptop were reported to be lost stolen or missing, and even then “…the district would first have to request access from its technology and security department and receive authorization.” Additionally, the school claims this monitoring was all part of an agreement defining “acceptable-use” that the family had to sign to allow the student to take the laptop home, which also states that the family was required to buy insurance for the borrowed laptop. So far, so ridiculous, but then it starts getting sillier…
Now, as for the student’s “improper behavior” that the school claims they viewed is starting to come to light, thanks to the lawsuit. While the school claims to have used the secret remote webcam activation ONLY 42 times (and only to ‘track down’ lost or stolen laptops) it hasn’t explained what this student was busted for, after all, he hadn’t stolen the computer. Now it sounds like the school is claiming that, “…the student was disciplined for was an accusation of either drug use or drug selling. For what? Well, the image showed the student with Mike & Ikes candies, which do have a passing resemblance to pills, but (last we checked) do not appear to be controlled substances.” Now we all know that obesity is something we need to keep in check in this country, but a school counting how many jelly beans a kid is eating at home? Come on! But seriously, they thought the student was popping pills at home, and they thought this would be an acceptable use of their spying capability to bring this to light? Just who are the geniuses behind this idea, much less the plan of using the webcams to track stolen laptops of students? While using webcams to spy on users is pretty high tech, and seems to be a unbeatable to find the perps who lifted the laptops, I can’t think of any way (*cough* black tape) to stop the webcam (*cough* reinstall) from seeing the user, plus, once they have the perps image, they still have to figure out who that is, and pass it on up the chain. While I’m all for schools protecting their property, I’ve always thought something less compicuous be used, like having software that phones home to alert authorities not only that the laptop has been stolen, but where it’s connecting from, and other specific details of the new user. Of course there paid software Mac options out there, free ones for Linux, and even cooler ones for the DIY geek to really hack into (a keylogger being a particularly fun way to turn the tables and mess with the privacy of these perps). The point is, a cursory Google search reveals far more options without the obvious privacy of using a webcam to gather info.
Now, with the court case still looming, the district is canceling the surveillance project, while blaming the snafu on two overzealous staffers. The districts’ superintendent claims that, “…mistakes might be made when combining technology and education in a cutting-edge way”, but here’s hoping that’s just PR and not his real understanding of the issues at hand here. While I think giving students their own laptops is a great idea, I can’t imagine anyone on a school board would thinking this would be the right way to protect their investment, especially when putting the insurance responsibility on the student’s families. The outcome of this case can be followed on the Wikipedia page covering the suit, and fortunately cases like this serve to set new precidents for privacy, giving groups that promote such freedoms well deserved press to illistrate the good they do for all of us. The ACLU of Pennsylvania isn’t involved in the lititgation, but, “…its director, Vic Walczak, criticized the school district’s action. “Neither police nor school officials can enter a private home, physically or electronically, without an invitation or a warrant. The school district’s clandestine electronic eavesdropping violates constitutional privacy rights, intrudes on parents’ right to raise their children and may even be criminal under state and federal wiretapping laws,” Walczak said “… George Orwell’s ’1984′ is an overused metaphor, but it applies here in spades. Part of the school officials’ punishment should be to retake ninth-grade civics class.” Meanwhile, my hero’s over at EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundataion) are represented by, “…Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who specializes in electronic privacy, also said the school may have broken federal wire-tapping laws. He called the school district’s action “foolish and dangerous,” saying the matter could prove to be a warning to other districts.” For bonus points, there is now a post on laptopmag.com covering just the ACLU and EFF’s coverage of this case.
What do you think, should the school have even tried to use such measures to keep tabs on their property? Should they have done it a different way? Or are you a parent with kids in grade school (like me) that can’t believe a trusted institution would pull such a stunt? Then, to get coverage from the other 1/2 of this dynamic writing team up, swing over to Matt at Obtuse View with his post highlighting some other considerations of this case.