When schools spy on their students, bad things happen

Pennsylvania's Lower Merion School District thought it was clever to use webcams to track its students' MacBooks -- boy, were they mistaken

Sometimes even I am blown away by how mind-numbingly stupid people can be when it comes to technology. I'm not talking about people who can't find the "any" key. I'm talking about institutional stupidity, the kind you only get when you mix technophobic bureaucrats and geeks with no sense of boundaries.

In case you haven't been following the plot of Webcamgate, starring the Lower Merion School District in Southeastern Pennsylvania and a cast of thousands, here's the skinny.

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Last week the Robbins family, whose son Blake attends LMSD's Harriton High, filed a class-action suit against the district alleging that it's been spying on its students via webcams on school-supplied MacBooks.

The suit came about after Blake Robbins was called into the assistant principal Lindy Matsko's office last November to discuss "inappropriate behavior" he was displaying -- at home. The proof? A snapshot of him taken with his laptop's Webcam.

Apparently Matsko thought Blake was popping pills. According to Robbins, he was merely eating candy: Mike-N-Ikes. (A classic gateway drug -- before you know it, he'll be deep into Good-N-Plenty and then totally hooked on Tic Tacs.)

The idea that the school could peer into the Robbins' home -- and by implication, the homes of nearly 2,400 other students in the district -- blew their minds. It also may have violated dozens of federal and state laws regarding privacy, wiretapping, and electronic communications, as alleged in their suit [PDF].

The school district's response? Yes, we have the ability to activate students' webcams remotely, but it's strictly used for tracking lost or stolen laptops, says school superintendent Dr. Christopher W. McGinley. No, we didn't tell any of the students or their families about it. Oops. Our bad.

(Apparently Southeastern Pennsylvania is plagued by bands of roving laptop thieves, most of them cheerleaders and prom queens between the ages of 14 and 17. Or so I hear.)

Interestingly, while the district failed to inform parents about the technology, it did take time to create a video lauding the remote access features of the software, LANrev 4.6 (now Absolute Manage), which it created for MacEnterprise.org in June 2008.

How often have they used the technology this year? According to McGinley, 42 times. He writes:

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.

It's clear somebody's not telling the whole truth -- clear enough that the FBI is investigating. But you have to wonder: If Robbins' story isn't true, how else did he find out that the school could be watching its students -- and anyone else who wanders in front of their laptops -- 24/7?

The media is on this like a pack of hyenas on a McDonalds delivery truck. Other students have reported noticing their webcam's green "on" light coming on randomly and having been told by school officials that this was just "a glitch."

Savanna Williams, a statuesque sophomore at Harriton, appeared on CBS's "The Early Show" with her mother, talking about how she takes her school-supplied notebook everywhere -- including the bathroom when she showers. If that doesn't give you a strong mental image of the potential for abuse, nothing will.

For a thoroughly creepy demonstration of how another school, the Bronx's IS 339, spies on its students using webcams, check out this video. Assistant Principal Dan Ackerman cheerfully shows how he watches sixth and seventh graders in real time without their knowing it while they preen in front of an app called Photo Booth.

Photo Booth is always fun... a lot of kids are just on it to check their hair, do their makeup, the girls, you know. They just use it like it's a mirror...  They don't even realize that we're watching...I always like to mess with them and take a picture.

At least he's doing it on school grounds and not in their bathrooms.

Still, even if the LMSD's motives were pure -- and the techies in charge of activating the webcams didn't abuse the privilege -- the cluelessness displayed by the school district is breathtaking.

First, what good does taking a snapshot via the webcam do, exactly? It doesn't prove that whoever's in front of the camera actually stole the thing. That would be laughed out of court. The district gets much better location information from the IP address. It's totally gratuitous -- but the kind of thing geeks eat right up.

The school district has many other questions yet to answer. Like: Who had the authority to initiate remote access? What events trigger it? Does a police report have to be filed? Why were school techs invoking remote access and not law officers? Are the legitimate laptop users notified when pictures are snapped? How many pictures were taken and where are they stored? Who else has access to them? How long are they kept? How secure is access to these controls?

In short: What the hell were they thinking?

Imagine some tech-savvy teen hacking that system, activating cameras at will, then posting the images to Facebook or YouTube. Oh the fun they could have!

You wouldn't give a crack pipe and a gun to a monkey and set him loose in a crowd. Likewise, you shouldn't give Big Brotherish software to school districts and expect them not to misuse it. Regardless of what happens in this suit (I predict a quiet yet healthy cash settlement), it's clear that administrators at Lower Merion have earned an F in computer management. I'd recommend a years' detention, if not outright expulsion.

Does webcam spying cross the line? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "When schools spy on their students, bad things happen," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog.

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