Smile for the Camera

Of course this technology was going to be abused. That was the plan from the outset.

The Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania has been sued by the parents of a student who claims an assistant principal accused him of engaging in “improper behavior” at home. In a case of true life science fiction, she supported her accusation with photos of him taken remotely by the built-in webcam on his MacBook.

The district purchased 2,620 laptops costing around $1000 apiece to fulfill a goal of issuing laptop computers to all high school students. Each computer was equipped with a security feature whereby the MacBook’s webcam could be remotely activated by the school technical staff. A student told NBC: “Occasionally a green light would go on on your computer which would kind of give you the feeling that somebody’s watching you.”

Although as a condition for receiving the laptop the student’s family had to sign an “acceptable-use” agreement that made them aware of the school’s ability to monitor the hardware, they were not explicitly told that the webcam could be remotely activated by the school.

In response to publicity generated by the lawsuit, the Lower Merion district Superintendant posted a letter to parents saying that the security feature was “limited to taking a still image of the computer user and an image of the desktop in order to help locate the reported missing, lost, or stolen computer….”

But the webcam could be and was put to other use, according to the attorney for student Blake Robbins. He said in the photos Robbins was shown by the assistant principal, the teen was allegedly holding two pill-shaped objects. School officials believed they were drugs. The family says they were Mike-N-Ike candy. “They were trying to allege that…those were pills and somehow he was involved in selling drugs,” said the attorney.

While the district Superintendant has admitted the capabilities of the security feature he has completely denied Robbins’ story:

Did an assistant principal at Harriton ever have the ability to remotely monitor a student at home? Did she utilize a photo taken by a school-issued laptop to discipline a student?

No. 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.

Truth is not determined by a poll, but officials of the school district that sent home laptops with this security feature are going to find it hard to convince the public their version is true.

[Thanks to David Klaus for the story.]