Spying on students via 'free' laptops

School administrators are spying on students at home by remotely activating the webcams on school-supplied laptops, charge parents in a lawsuit against Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia. Using state and federal fundings, the affluent district provided laptops to 1,800 high school students.

Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., said they first found out about the alleged spying last November after their son Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of “improper behavior in his home” and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

An assistant principal at Harriton later confirmed that the district could remotely activate the Webcam in students’ laptops. “Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through [Assistant Principal] Ms. Matsko, that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student’s 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,” the lawsuit stated.

It’s hard to believe this is true. I hope it’s not. The district has not responded to the lawsuit yet. Maybe the parents are crazy and there was no photo of “improper behavior.” If it is true, the administrators are crazy. And apparently don’t have enough to do with their time.

Update: The superintendent says officials remotely activated the webcams only to find lost or stolen laptops and will disable the remote activation feature. Meanwhile, students have taped over the cameras.

About Joanne


  1. My first question would be:

    “What the business is it of yours what my child’s behavior is at home?!?”

    Of course, we could just turn this around on them. As a commenter on The Loop pointed out, the officials had no way of knowing if the student was dressed when the cam was activated. Let it capture the student undressed, then have them all charged as sex offenders.

  2. This does seem pretty far out there. The article states a very good point- in addition to violating students’ privacy, the district is also potentially violating the privacy of non-students. While I certainly disagree withe the use of their laptops to monitor students, monitoring non-students would put it way over the top legally.

    A related issue might be if inappropriate content is generated with the camera and stored on the computer’s hard drive. If the district can access the computer remotely and find that content without using the camera, or if they can somehow prove inappropriate material on the internet was generated using the camera on the computer, then it would be a different story.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    I like the school’s point that they would only use the capacity for good reasons. Don’t we all trust administrators?

  4. This case is not quite so cut and dried, though it should be. I don’t think the family will get much joy out of this lawsuit. While I deplore the way the school did this, I am not sure they are in legal trouble here.

    Who owns the laptop? The school. This is very similar to using your work computer for personal email. The company might allow it, but they also can look through it all.

    I think this case will boil down to the forms that were signed, the language of the agreement, and the expectation of privacy while using school resources.

    Having said that, the administrator was an idiot, but I repeat myself.

  5. An answer to Obi — while your kid may be at home, he was using a school-issued laptop. If he were on your computer, then you have all the rights to privacy that you imagine. If the school mentioned that the webcams could be operated remotely (especially if the parents signed an agreement that included this fact) and that laptop use would be monitored, then they are in a PR jam but not a legal one. Having your kid undress in front of the camera would be violating their terms of use – you would be committing a crime first – kind of like complaining that your kid was seen naked in school by the administrator that caught him running naked down the hall.

    Granted, this all hinges on the agreement signed and THAT could be a really important document, but accepting the hardware comes with a small loss of privacy.

  6. Don Bemont says:

    Come on, this is ridiculous!

    Of course, I hope that the facts of the case turn out to be quite different than they appear, but that posters here would look for excuses for schools’ monitoring homes boggles the mind.

    You mean that, if schools had handed out pens or dictionaries to students with hidden recording devices in them to snoop on families, this would have been okay with you? All that was necessary was the proper signed forms, with legalese that no one can understand, as a legal shield?

    This sounds like something out of a dystopian novel or a paranoid left or right wing rant — in fact, this sort of stuff makes you wonder whether the tea party types have a point.

  7. I would not have a problem – necessarily – with a school doing a remote screen-capture, or going through students’ online search histories on a school-owned laptop. But using a webcam to (apparently) covertly take pictures is scary. As someone else said, what if the kid was in the process of undressing to get ready for bed?

    it’s just creepy, if true. I’m sure someone thought it was “for the students’ good” but there are so many things today done allegedly for people’s own good that are sort of creepy and invasive.

  8. >this sort of stuff makes you wonder whether the tea party types have a point.

    While I haven’t heard any tea party types mention this particular issue, I think it’s a safe bet that this is indeed the sort of thing they’re thinking of when they hold up signs that say, “the Constitution isn’t just a piece of paper.”

    Why is it that we keep hearing of such incredibly stupid things being done by school districts? Do they routinely hire halfwits? Why?

  9. Actually, the school district is in a boatload of legal trouble (civil and very likely criminal). I read the federal lawsuit (class action) and it appears from what is being states in the lawsuit, they are in violation of the EPCA (Electronic Privacy Comm. Act), FTCA (Federal Tort Claims Act), 4th amendments protections, 14th amendment protections, and numerous state laws in Penn. which have to do with privacy protections.

    Another problem is the policy under which the laptops were given to the students to be used (I work in an environment where I have no expectation of privacy when I’m using company resources and that warning is made clear every time I log in to a computer).

    I would have to say that while a student may have no expectation of privacy while using the laptop, the use of an embedded webcam to secretly take pictures without knowning WHO is actually using the laptop and the fact that this probably violates most wiretapping laws in the state of PA leads me to believe that everyone who is party to this civil suit better get criminal defense lawyers as they’ll probably need ’em.

    A good example, the police need a warrant to use a wiretap or recording device (which has to be spelled out clearly, explained to the judge, and is only good for a limited period of time, 90 days or less).

    The school district did not have a warrant for said activity, so it could be construed that they were violating any number of state and federal laws when they used the embedded web camera.


  10. I’m impressed. 9 responses, and no one referred to Big Brother?

    If true, this sort of paternalistic monitoring destroys the trust between family and school which is necessary for education. “It’s the government’s computer, so we own you,” is offensive, no matter what arguments one might think up to defend it.

    I don’t know this high school, but if the student was required to accept a school-issued laptop to receive an education, there’s no way that could be construed as giving school officials the right to spy on behavior off school grounds.

  11. I wonder what the school found out about this young man that the staff thought it could pass along this information without ramifications on their end?? If these allegations against the school are true, I hope all involved are fired and their credentials revoked.

  12. On the practical side, wouldn’t it be better to avoid the legal hassles and just cover the camera.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    Two problems with your suggestion: I understand there is also an audio function. If true, covering the camera is only part of the fix.
    The other is that the admin could have covered the camera with tape if, 1, they wanted the kids to know there was a camera, and, 2, they didn’t want pictures. It appears they didn’t want the kids to know and they did want the pictures.
    The parents shouldn’t have to make fixes to the equipment to solve the admin’s underhanded windowpeeping. Especially after some non-trivial time of unhindered windowpeeping. And I expect the parents actually want the legal hassle. I fully understand.
    Fortunately, our local system didn’t even think of this. If a parent had offed a a ‘crat, I don’t think there would have been much point to trying to seat a jury.

  14. Don’t get worked up over privacy issues.

    Instead, get worked up over your lack of critical reading skills.

    It never happened.

    The quote in the news article isn’t a statement the reporter heard. It is nothing more than language in a lawsuit.

    It’s an outrageous claim that anyone with critical thinking skills can see is not only unlikely, but simply not true.

  15. I’d say the lawsuit is nothing to laugh about, due to the statements that the superintendent of schools made (that the remote camera activation will be disabled immediately).

    This wouldn’t have been done unless the statements made by the student and parents weren’t generally accurate.

  16. Robert?

    Let’s review those critical reading skills again.

    Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa.,
    said they first found out about the alleged
    spying last November after their son Blake was
    accused by a Harriton High School official of
    “improper behavior in his home” and shown a
    photograph taken by his laptop.

  17. I have to retract my previous statement.

    I’m the one guilty here of jumping to a false conclusion.

    Thank you, Bill, for telling me about the Supe’s statement.

  18. How much of the districts money will walk, no run out of classroom and end up in the wallets of lawyers who will defend this lunacy? Just askin.

  19. LMSD does not post any financial info on their web site so I wasn’t able to determine if they were flush with cash to defend the law suit.

    Here’s and excerpt from a letter sent by the Superintendent to all parents:

    “Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. District laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. The security feature, which was disabled today, was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student.

    Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature would be activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The security feature’s capabilities were limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever…”

    I guess we will have to wait to see if the last two sentences are true.

  20. Richard Aubrey says:

    Now that you know the rest of us are–surprise–at least partially literate, do we still have a privacy problem?

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    Raise your hands if you’d like to put $1000 on the proposition that the district, or any of its employees, never activated thy system except for purposes of tracking down a stolen laptop/
    Raise your hands if you’d like to put fifty cents down on the proposition that it would never have happened had the system remained in place.
    Since the district is de-activating the program, can they re-activate it unilaterally? I’m sure some of the tape would slip sometime. Just need enough folks looking through the intake.

  22. The security feature, which was disabled today, was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student.

    This was exactly what I figured was the case. Wouldn’t it be funny if the “inappropriate behavior” Robbins was accused of was vandalism?

    In any event, schools are moronic if they give students laptops. Waste of taxpayer money.

  23. I wouldn’t be certain that the webcams were never used to watch kids. Why not? Well, Frontline’s “Digital Nation” shows a school principal using laptop webcams to monitor students: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/learning/schools/how-google-saved-a-school.html?play (at 4:41 on that video clip.) He pulls up real-time video of students doing academic work, or browsing the web, or using the computer camera to adjust makeup. This is an administrator’s monitoring program.

    So, is this the only principal using laptop cameras this way? Do you believe that? The principal on PBS uses it in school.

  24. Scrooge McDuck says:

    Thanks, Cranberry. I thought Cal had the last word as usual.

  25. Richard, yes. The privacy problem is so great it was practically impossible for me to believe.

    And once again, I have to confess to being an idiot.

  26. Miller Smith says:

    FBI is on the case now. FBI has openned a criminal investigation.

    Many parents and students have dropped off their laptops in the main office of the high school and have proclaimed that they will never ever again allow school issued electronic devices in their homes.

    No matter what “rights” the school system has or what “rights” some of you say the parents and kids don’t have, this was a very stupid thing for the admin to do. The school now has a large group of parents and students who will not take the equipment.

    Oh, and I can just see the first time the school says that a kid will suffer academically for not taking the equipment home.

  27. Here is an except:


    The FBI is investigating a Pennsylvania school district accused of secretly activating webcams inside students’ homes, a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case told The Associated Press on Friday.

    The FBI will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

    Looks like the school and staff may be in deep doo-doo.

  28. “This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever…”

    Was the student’s laptop reported missing? If not, wouldn’t that make the superintendent a liar?

  29. It’s not necessary to use the laptop camera to locate a missing laptop. There are any number of software programs which will do this. A quick Google search shows a number of products which claim to be open source. Using such a program, which “phones home” when connected to the internet, would avoid any invasion of privacy. It would also make it much easier to obtain a warrant to retrieve stolen property.

    Does the school have an IT department?

  30. i think that even if the school made the parents sign a contract and they were using the tracking system to locate the laptops why didn’t they use the money for stuff like after-school programs instead of buying one for every kid in the school. i´m a student in a high school that won’t be able to afford programs like summer school because of insufficient funding.

    i was looking for low cost laptops in google and this caught my eye. giving laptops to the students is good only when they know that they are academically and financially good and in the words of spiderman´s grandpa “with great power, comes great responsibility”


  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by JoanneLeeJacobs: New blog post: Spying on students via ‘free’ laptops http://www.joannejacobs.com/2010/02/spying-on-students-via-free-laptops/