High school confidential: Spies, lies, and alibis

Turns out Lower Merion is not the only school district to spy on students via their webcams. Just how stupid are all these people?

I knew my story about the Lower Merion School District spying on its students via their webcams would get a rise out of the Cringeville population, and I wasn't disappointed. Since I posted the piece, however, there have been a few new developments.

For one, Harriton High assistant principal Lindy Matsko has issued an emphatic and emotional denial, declaring media reports that she spied on students ""unjust and inaccurate":

At no point in time did I have the ability to access any Web cam through security tracking software. At no time have I ever monitored a student via a laptop web cam, nor have I ever authorized the monitoring of a student via security tracking web cam, either at school or within the home. And I never would.

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She adds that she's never disciplined a student for actions outside of school that were not related to school activities. You can listen to her full six-minute statement at KYW Newsradio's Web site.

The problem? According to the lawsuit at the heart of this case, Matsko allegedly showed Harriton High sophomore Blake Robbins a picture somebody else allegedly snapped of him using his laptop's webcam. That's something she never actually denies doing (possibly on advice of her lawyers).

Fact is, though, if there's anyone at fault here, it isn't Matsko -- it's the IT geeks who implemented this "laptop tracking" technology and the school administrators who approved its use.

Outrageous as it seems, this practice does not seem to be that unusual. First there's that school in the Bronx that uses Webcams to remotely watch students in classrooms [video], which was featured in an NPR Frontline documentary, "Digital Nation." It's pretty damned creepy.

Then I got an email from a reader, a former school systems engineer who goes by "anonymous" (no, not that Anonymous), who says his former employer  -- a district outside Richmond, Va. -- has done the very thing Lower Merion school officials have admitted to doing, and for the same reasons. His take on it is somewhat chilling.

In the first year of the laptop program, the laptops were running Mac OS 9 which had a remote control program called ARD.  Principals, the technology department, etc used ARD to push software to the laptops, and also to monitor what students were doing.  I know firsthand that many students had figured out how to run ARD on their own to remote control other students' laptops.

[The district] upgraded to OSX several years ago.  With the latest laptops that have been issued to the middle school students, the administrators, technology department, etc have the ability to use the built-in cameras by remote control exactly as was done at Lower Merion...

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the school district has activated its webcams 50 times in the past three years to locate laptops stolen from elementary schools, and recovered 20 of them. One big difference, though: Unlike in the Lower Merion case, these computers were not supposed to go home with students. That's really where those guys crossed the line. It's one thing to watch kids on school grounds, quite another to snoop on them at home (see creepy, damned, above).

Of course, if the students were able to figure out how to hack ARD, it’s very, very likely that some student has figured out how to do the same with the camera software.

Meanwhile, Cringe fan N. M. served up this fascinating bit of trivia: Lower Merion counts among its graduates the late Alexander ("I am in control") Haig, Chuck Barris of "Gong Show" fame, and Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant. I know there's a connection here between those three and this webcam story, and if I drank enough Vodka Red Bulls I might find it.

A reader known to me only as Stu had this correction to my post to add:

You said, "you shouldn't give Big Brotherish software to school districts and expect them not to misuse it."

Instead, I would say, "you shouldn't give Big Brotherish software to ANYONE and expect them not to misuse it."

Tru dat.

How many other school districts are doing the same thing? (Or at least, were doing the same thing until the news about Lower Merion hit?) For that matter, how many employers who issue webcam-equipped notebooks are secretly watching their employees at home? It's as if everybody has signed up for ChatRoulette, whether they know it or not.

We have met Big Brother, and he is that dweeby guy in the cubicle down the hall.

If you're reading this you're probably an IT geek. So I'll ask: Have you ever used your techno-powers to spy on someone when they were unawares? Post your confession below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com. Don't worry, I won't pull off the mask and reveal your secret identity.

This article, "High school confidential: Spies, lies, and alibis," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog.

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