School District Halts Webcam Surveillance

A suburban Philadelphia school district is deactivating a webcam, theft-tracking program secretly lodged on 2,300 student laptops following allegations the device was used by administrators to spy on a boy at home.

“I think given the concerns of parents and community members, I think we have a responsibility to at least take a pause and review the policy,” Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young said in a telephone interview Thursday evening.

The move came a day after the 6,900-pupil district, which provides students from its two high schools free Macbooks, was sued in federal court on allegations it was undertaking a dragnet surveillance program targeting its students — an allegation the district denied. Young said the computer-tracking program was activated a “handful” of times solely to track a missing laptop.

The suit was based on a student’s claim, acknowledged by the district, that the webcam was used by school officials to chronicle “improper behavior” based on a photo the computer secretly took of the boy at home. (.pdf) in November.

The assistant principal at Harriton High informed the student “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,” according to the lawsuit.

Young declined to directly say whether the program was activated in this instance to locate a missing laptop. He said the district only activates it when there is a reported missing laptop, and urged Threat Level to draw its own “inferences.”

“The only situation where the feature would have been activated is in the case of a stolen, missing or lost laptop,” Young said. “There’s never been any scenario used for any purpose other than that.”

Lawyers for the student did not return phone calls and e-mails for comment. The Associated Press reported late Friday the FBI was probing the allegations.

The lawsuit seeks class-action status to represent all the district’s 2,300 high school students. “Unbeknownst to plaintiffs and members of the class, and without their authorization, defendants have been spying on the activities of plaintiffs and class members by defendants’ indiscriminate use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the school district,” according to the complaint.

When the district began issuing laptops to all its students two years ago, it never informed them of the tracking feature, said Young, the district spokesman.

He conceded that district officials went too far. The program was not intended to bring to light the private behaviors of adolescent boys, he conceded.

“It did not seek specifically to do that,” Young said.

The name and maker of the program, Young said, was not immediately available. He described the program as one that “basically enables the district to capture an image of the desktop and whatever is in front of the screen for law enforcement to help track down a missing computer.”


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