Peeping Tom Technology: School Uses Webcams To Spy On Students

1 January 2009

The family of Blake Robbins, a 15-year-old student from Pennsylvania has launched a civil lawsuit after it emerged that his school may have been using his school-issued laptop to spy on him without his knowledge.

Students of Harriton High School in Lower Merion School District are issued with Apple MacBooks to use at home and school. According to the civil complaint filed with the federal court, Mr. Robbins first became aware of the alleged spying when he was called to the office of his vice principal, Lindy Matsko. According to the complaint, Ms Matsko informed Mr Robbins 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 [his] personal laptop.”

Following this, Mr. Robbins ascertained that software had been installed to allow the camera to be activated remotely by the school.

“I could take over without the user’s knowledge and just activate the webcam,” Houston-based computer forensics lecturer, Jim Martin told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In a statement issued quickly after news of the complaint surfaced, the school confirmed that the software is present, but claimed that it is not in place for the purpose of spying on pupils:

“Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.”

Despite this assertion, the Robbins family disagreed and filed a motion on Friday 19th February 2010 arguing that:

“[Blake Robbins] was at home using a school issued laptop that was neither reported lost nor stolen when his image was captured by Defendants without his or his parents’ permission and while he was at home.”

The school claims that the software has now been disabled, but the Robbins’ have petitioned to prevent the school from recalling the laptops, believing that vital evidence could be removed.

At the time of writing, the suit is ongoing and the FBI are said to be investigating the case, but the implications of the case could be far reaching, especially as many of the pupils keep the laptops in their bedrooms.

“This is an age where kids explore their sexuality, so there’s a lot of that going on in the room,” Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post. “This is fodder for child porn.”

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