February 20 2010

Pennsylvania School Being Investigated For Wiretapping Over Webcam Access

The saga of the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania is getting another chapter added to it: The FBI and local detectives have entered the picture.

The other day I reported on a class action lawsuit (PDF link) being filed against the Lower Merion School District over the discovery that the school district could remotely activate the webcams in the 2300 laptops it had issued to students.  The information came to light when 15-year-old Blake Robbins was called to the Asst. principals office and was accused of “improper behavior in his home.”  As evidence of his poor behavior, he was presented with prints outs of images taken from a laptop’s webcam.

District spokesman Doug Young said that the cameras had been activated 42 times in the past 18-months in an effort to to find lost or stolen computers, of which 18 had been recovered.  Although Mr. Young would not specify why this particular camera that saw Mr. Robbins had been activated, he told the Associated Press, “infer what you want.”  However, according to, Mr. Robbins told the media gathered outside of his home recently that the image was of him eating Mike & Ike candies, which the school mistook for illegal pills.

Whatever the case may be in the situation with Mr. Robbins, the school district’s ability to activate the cameras had never been revealed to the students or their families in any way.  This has now gotten the attention of both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives over the possibility that the school violated both wiretapping and computer-intrusion laws.

The school district reports that the software which allowed them to remotely activate the camera’s has now been deactivated, but that isn’t putting any student’s minds at ease.  Reportedly the students have begun placing tape over the webcams built into their school-issued Apple laptops, and who can blame them?  The school has given permission for the students to cover the cameras, but, honestly, did they have a choice at this point in time?  And furthermore, if I was a student in this school district, they would be finding the laptop on their front lawn the moment I learned they could do this.

Dr. Christopher W. McGinley, the superintendent of the school district, has released a letter and a list of answers to frequently asked questions, one of which somewhat supports Mr. Robbins claims about the candies if you read between the lines (which you kind of have to do with each of his very carefully worded answers):

1. Did an assistant principal at Harriton ever have the ability to remotely monitor a student at home? Did she utilize a photo taken by a school-issued laptop to discipline a student?

  • No. At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security- tracking software. We believe that the administrator at Harriton has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family. The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action.

Well, that’s nice and all, but the Asst. principal was never accused of being the one to access the camera, she simply had a print out of the image. Secondly, the lawsuit never mentions disciplinary action, it just says he was accused of “improper behavior in his home.”  And, I’m sorry, but being “supportive of a student and his family” involves showing a teenage boy an image that proves we can see in to your home?  Oh, I feel all warm and safe now!

No matter how you slice it, the school district messed up, and it messed up in a spectacular fashion.  No matter what Mr. Robbins did or did not do is not the point here.  The point is that a school district, no matter how altruistic its motives may have been, hid software capable of spying on someone in their own home without their knowledge.  Dr. McGinley admits it was wrong of them to not inform the students and their families of the software, which he fully admits they did not, and this shows such a spectacular lack of judgement that I would question every thing to do with this school system at this point.

A school is somewhere you are supposed to be able to send your children and feel safe in doing so.  Knowing that the school saw no problem in keeping vital information from you such as, “Oh, by the way, we can look at your child any time we want, even at home, without telling you” just goes beyond the pale.

Again I say, this is not about Mr. Robbins and what he may or may not have done, but it is very distinctly about a growing and worrying trend of schools overstepping the boundaries of common sensibilities.  What’s next?  Handcuffing a 12-year-old for doodling on her desk?  Oh … wait … that already happened.  Okay, how about handcuffing a six-year-old for throwing a temper tantrum?  Surely they wouldn’t … oh … dang it.

In short … are you sure you know what your public school is doing to “protect” your kids?

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