School issued computers as spy devices

Anyone with a school-issued computer ought to check it over, now.  And maybe put a towel over the thing.  Unplug it, and take the battery out.

And, oh, do I wish I had an AP Government class to discuss this with!

Did you hear the one about Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, school officials spying on students’ bedrooms?

Good discussion at the Volokh Conspiracy:  “Big Teacher Is Watching You?

According to the Complaint in Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (filed a week ago),

2. Unbeknownst to [high school students and their parents], and without their authorization, [high school officials] have been spying on the activities of [the students] by Defendants’ indiscrimina[te] use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District….23…. Plaintiffs were for the first time informed of [this] capability and practice by the School District when … an Assistant Principal at Harriton High School[] informed minor Plaintiff that the School District was of the belief that minor Plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the School District….

24. [The minor Plaintiff’s father] thereafter verified, through [the Assistant Principal], that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students’ personal laptop computer issued by the School District at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.

If this was indeed done, and if it was done without adequately notifying the students and their parents, this was clearly tortious, likely a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and possibly a statutory violation as well (though I haven’t looked closely at the statutory details). It is also appalling — school officials spying on children in their parents’ homes without the children’s and parents’ permission. Who thinks up such things?

Who thinks them up, and can we get them to wear a badge so we know they’re not in our school?

Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars already is on the story — a few good comments there.

A statement from the Lower Merion School District generally ignores the specifics of the allegations in the case, and claims that the monitoring of the self-contained web-cams was done only when a computer was reported stolen.  In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that a student was reprimanded for behaviors caught on the camera, while the student was at home.  The statement is very much what we would expect from a rich district caught doing something wrong after getting better advice from their attorneys than they thought they needed before they did the wrong thing.

An Associated Press story (here in the Washington Post) said the FBI has opened an investigation into whether school officials violated anti-wiretapping laws.

The suit filed is a civil suit.  Assuming its allegations to be correct, I think the plaintiffs may want to add RICO sections to the complaint.  Under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act a pattern of practices like illegal use of the webcams could easily be evidence to trigger RICO  penalties, which included treble damages.  Such a charge would also scare the textbooks out of school officials thinking they might want to do this in the future.

Comments at the Volokh Conspiracy, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and in the AP story in the WaPo all raised the spectre of child pornography.  If the computers caught images of children in their bedrooms, it might automatically qualify as child porn — and this would greatly complicate the case, and ramp up the noise surrounding it.

School districts who issue laptops to students, or teachers, should review the story and their own procedures and regulations.


7 Responses to School issued computers as spy devices

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Not much chance any of the commenters there would click over here.


  2. Nick Kelsier says:

    To quote:
    Businesses carefully avoid situations like this because of the possible damage to their reputation and possible lawsuits.

    Right because companies have never ever ever in the history of the world done anything unethical or illegal that would damage any of their reputations and have never ever been sued for doing such.

    Ed, can you get that joker to come over here and explain to me the color of the sky in the world he’s living in?


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    At Coyote, in a thread where my posts aren’t getting through any more, Spiro said:

    “Show me a company who issues Apple Macbooks to employees, I’ll show you a likely candidate for just exactly the sort of spying this school district did. And of course, that spying would include the bedrooms of the employees. ”

    Speculation. Please give me a REAL example of a corporation that secretly spied on people in their homes without consent. You can’t. Businesses carefully avoid situations like this because of the possible damage to their reputation and possible lawsuits. The government, on the other hand, makes the laws and is therefore more likely to take action above the law.

    But more importantly, why are you so paranoid about private corporations? When did a corporation to send thousands to war? When did a corporation to go door to door, using armed enforcement as a back-up, gathering private information on citizens in the U.S.? When did a corporation freeze all your accounts and put you in prison for not paying them, even if you never use their products?

    Because these are actions the U.S. government takes daily.

    I responded, but the spam filters and blog moderator have not allowed through:

    HP got caught (you’ve forgotten already?). Forbes offered a primer on how to spy legally without getting caught:

    PC World warns that company spying is commonplace, and legal:

    Boeing paid a $14.5 million fine to California for spying on employees — this Seattle Post-Intelligencer story should dispel any myths about companies not spying on every detail of their employees’ lives:

    That article closes out with this advice:

    Robert Ellis Smith, a lawyer and the publisher of Privacy Journal, a monthly newsletter, called whistle-blower protections the “wild card” in employee protections.

    “Protections against electronic surveillance are virtually non-existent in the workplace,” Smith said. “The one wild card for this is federal protections for whistle-blowers. Aside from that, the privacy laws are quite weak.”

    Spiro, it’s more than speculation — as you could have discovered with a quick search. Businesses do it all the time because they lack the conscience that real humans have. They are not bound by privacy protection laws the way governments, especially school districts are (see the Buckley Amendment from 1974).

    You have real corporations caught secretly spying on employees in every aspect of their daily lives without employee consent, in the examples I’ve offered — and I’m just on page one of the Google search.

    I am not paranoid at all about private corporations, but I am a realist. My experience, in government, in big companies, in small companies, and in school districts, is that y’all don’t really have a clue what you’re talking about. Private companies are not more moral than public employees in school districts — private companies don’t face nearly the audit pressure.

    We’re not talking about school districts sending thousands to war, either — but you may want to look up the company Blackwater and whatever its new name is before you start claiming companies don’t go to war. No one has accused any school district of going door-to-door with arms to get information about people. I don’t know what sort of wild hare you’re off on.

    When did a corporation freeze all accounts? It happens daily. Do you have direct deposit? You’ve consented to let your employer into your bank account, and that includes the ability to pull funds out and insist that the bank stop your access until things are sorted out (yes, it happened to me).

    Our host here said of the Lower Merion SD case: “Here is a great example of behavior that is inconcieveable in the private sector, or, if found at a private company, would quickly result in its extinction.”

    As I’ve shown, it’s not only not inconceivable to the cynics among us, it is well known to those of us who have ever had to track such issues.

    Pick up a good book on the Karen Silkwood case sometime. No corporate extinction there. Boeing is still going strong. So is HP. So is Texaco, though under different ownership (due to other stupid corporate tricks).

    We have 15,000 school districts in the nation, with one caught with their eyes in the web-cams. It’s clearly not cricket, though maybe legal, for school districts. Why don’t we hear about it more in private companies? It’s perfectly legal for them to do it. Who would rat? What would the penalty be?

    I’ve offered only evidence of those companies caught. There are many more of those than school districts caught.

    Consider the numbers, consider the odds, consider the evidence.


  4. […] School District?  That’s the one that issued Mac laptops to all the high school kids, and then got embarrassed when it was discovered that the computers came equipped with cameras that take…, according to the allegations in the complaint that started the federal […]


  5. george.w says:

    Here’s what stumps me about this: everyone involved had to be reasonably “intelligent” whatever that means. From administrators who got their jobs presumably with a master’s degree or better, to techs who had to know how to set up the system (and believe me, we techs do follow privacy issues), they had to know what they were doing was idiotic.

    I just can’t conjure up a scenario where they aren’t fully culpable.


  6. elektratig says:

    I saw this at Volokh. Assuming it’s true, it leaves me speechless. What is wrong with these people?


Please play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes. While your e-mail will not show with comments, note that it is our policy not to allow false e-mail addresses. Comments with non-working e-mail addresses may be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: