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School Laptops Used for Home Spying

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From BoingBoing:

According to the filings in
Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA) et al
, the laptops issued to high-school students in the well-heeled Philly suburb have webcams that can be covertly activated by the schools' administrators, who have used this facility to spy on students and even their families. The issue came to light when the Robbins's child was disciplined for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence. The suit is a class action, brought on behalf of all students issued with these machines.

If true, these allegations are about as creepy as they come. I don't know about you, but I often have the laptop in the room while I'm getting dressed, having private discussions with my family, and so on. The idea that a school district would not only spy on its students' clickstreams and emails (bad enough), but also use these machines as AV bugs is purely horrifying.

Wow, just wow. I wish that government officials wouldn't use 1984 as a how-to manual.

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Cross-posted from Metablog

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I can hardly believe someone would do this! It'll be interesting to learn all the facts.

The school says the camera-activation software was put in to be activated in case of theft, and that it was only activated in such cases. Not that that excuses everything, but if this was a case where the laptop was stolen, the software activated, a thief's photo was taken, and the thief turned out to be a student who was then reprimanded and made the news... then, the story seems more believable and understandable.

The school needs to figure out some way to track down laptops that does not involve cameras. They also need to remove their ability to take screen-shots from these laptops.

Edited by softwareNerd
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Since the laptops belong to the school district, can't they do whatever they want with them?
No. If they were a private entity, they still could not use them to spy on people in their own homes, since that goes well beyond the reasonable expectation of a user. As a government entity, they ought to be even more restricted in showing that anything they do is required to meet their narrow objectives as a school district. In particular, being a government entity, they ought to be held to strict privacy rules and disclosure rules. Edited by softwareNerd
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...

The school needs to figure out some way to track down laptops that does not involve cameras. They also need to remove their ability to take screen-shots from these laptops.

...

The situation as BoingBoing painted it is definitely dire and grim, and is a total overstepping of every rightful boundary. I agree with sNerd that those may not be all the facts, and that loss-prevention may be a key to this story. If that's the case, I don't think a web camera is the MOST effective theft-recovery/-deterrent tool, but it is a tool that the district, the laptop being their property on loan (assuming that's the set-up), has a right to use.

I was previously employed as part of an IT paraprofessional in a public school district and I this is what I know from experience.

First, in regards to anti-theft, other anti-theft devices and programs than just web cams are obviously more effective and should be employed.

Second, in regards to cameras and screenshots, I have to disagree with sNerd. While this may make me the bane of several here, I personally implemented software at our school that combined with our already useful screen-capture/monitoring/desktop control that could use the built-in camera to monitor in real-time (but not record), or in a blink from a single admin command capture a screen shot with a capture from the built-in camera without the user's knowledge. These capabilities existed for all computers linked to the school network. All students and faculty would sign a yearly technology use agreement with the school from K-12 (substituting guardian signatures for those too young) that outlined that all district computers were to be utilized for business concerning the activities of the district, being administration and education. It also was explained to all technology users and was made widely known that user's desktops and built-in cameras could and would be monitored at any given time. This applied to laptops issued to individuals that could be taken home (our district had few). It was never feigned that users on any district owned machine had any expectation of privacy. Such an expectation, it was explained, and I happen to agree, could only exist when the computer was your property on your own network. Why did I implement such an Orwellian-esque program or support such software or policies? Many rational reasons.

A. The district has the right to determine what it's privacy policies are in regards to their technology when it comes to matters not touched upon by any federal or state mandates. (I'm putting this in here in expectation of many citings of privacy laws. I'm not suggesting the school has the right to not follow the law, it obviously must follow the law.) These privacy policies were made known, very well known in fact, and nobody pretended it was otherwise.

1. With the desktop control software, I many times administered technical support across the building efficiently without having to leave the lab, which was half the time filled with children and one teacher who also were requiring support.

2. The district had a strict network use policy it had to maintain that was mandated by the government. Numerous things were implemented, but chief among them was a content filter that would block inappropriate, un-lawful, or other resources that did not fall under the domain of district use. Users that might circumvent this system in any way obviously met with consequences. Likewise, using district computers to construct hate-speech (photoshopped pictures, flyers, uploading inappropriate videos), online or offline harassment, or access another person's account were considered network use violations. Particularly in the case of laptops or stolen passwords, screenshots and facial captures were necessary to prove who the true abusive user was and what they were doing.

3. Even when the computer was not connected to the school's network, a district use policy still applied. Let's say you give a child who does not own a computer at home a laptop. He then takes that laptop to a friend's house (for the internet connection) and uses it for non educational (district approved) purposes (plotting the demise of his classmates, looking up how to build a bomb, linking up on Facebook in order to plan on how to bully an acquaintance, accessing adult materials, learning how to gain access/make drugs). It's the district who provided the laptop, and who owns the laptop (assuming it's on loan, other situations may exist), and can still be construed as being responsible for the activities of the child on the laptop as it is with the computers housed in it's buildings (network use policy). Thus, abuse of district policy regarding the laptop outside of "operating hours" or the real estate of the district, would still have consequences for the user, whom can only be tracked with stored histories, screenshots, and facial captures.

There are SO many possibilities that can occur when it comes to the triangle relationship of a school district, a computer (or any technology), and a student. These examples are only a narrow overview, but all are grounded in reality. If the district were stripped of the tools necessary (screenshots, histories, facial captures) to assert it's rights, implement mandated programs, protect itself from liability (even in private schools, in interest of cost), and protect the welfare of it's students, it would be unable to support any technology at all.

I am NO WAY in favor of spying on people in their homes, that's an obvious overstepping of some gravely serious boundaries. How somebody uses a piece of district property (if it's on loan) in their home, and what they are doing in their home are two different things however.

If a student or an individual requires absolute privacy in their use of a computer and the internet, they can take many measures to ensure their success. For an example: using their own privately owned computer, accessing a network with a strong concrete privacy policy (whether that's your home internet or elsewhere), using encryption technology to conceal communications, etc.

I'll also note that it has been asserted (I previously said proved, but that doesn't fit) in several cases that free speech in American public schools is limited, whether we like it or not.

I'm not here to argue about software rights, privacy rights, necessary measures, free speech, etc. I really don't participate in the board, but seeing as how I've had some experience in this regard and actually took an active Orwellian-esque hand in it, I thought I could contribute some valuable information and considerations into the conversation.

Thanks guys,

Asher

Edited by asherwolf
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Aside from many pertinent issues - I think we all have to accept that privacy will become a rarer and rarer commodity in the future. To a certain extent, we'll have to be willing to have more integrity, and live our lives in ways that we aren't concerned with others knowing about.

Let's hope not. A society without privacy would be a horrible, savage place to live in.

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I recently watched a show called Digital Nation on PBS and they mentioned something like this but I'm not sure if it was the same school district. What they described in that show was that the laptop cameras were used to monitor student behavior from time to time in the classroom. There was no mention of whether these computers were allowed to be taken home. I can see that the school may have some standing for using the cameras for that purpose in the school as the students do not have much of a reasonable expectation of privacy in that setting. However, if they were allowed to be taken home, no way, no how should the school be activating the cameras. That's just freakin' creepy!

Edited by RationalBiker
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I'm only here to participate like I said before, but I think I may be missing something here that other people are seeing.

Should a school activate a camera while a laptop is in someone's home to monitor the activity in that home? Absolutely not, that's a clear violation of so many things.

Should a school activate a camera on a laptop that is on loan to a student who has taken it home when that student attempts to do something in violation of the school's technology terms of use or even worse an illegal activity (such as attempt to bypass the content controls, or harass a classmate)? I ask why not? Somebody is using that particular laptop, owned by the district, to do something improper, and a necessary part of risk prevention is to assess who that person is for preventative measures to be taken for the future.

The general feeling I get here, and I don't know if I'm speaking out of turn (I don't intend to turn this into a debate, this'll be my last post on the topic), is that people have this across the board absolute policy that if that laptop enters the home no screenshots, and no facial captures (note the terminology, not house activity captures), are permitted at all, no matter what. In the case of a loan, it's not the student's laptop, it's the districts, and as an institution they have the right to protect themselves from liabilities, government or not.

Like I wrote above, there's a big difference between capturing information from a laptop because of how that particular laptop is being used at that particular time, and monitoring individuals in their homes outside of laptop use. Personally I find the first permissable, and the second outrageously wrong.

My question is, and this question is NOT assuming that the stance of monitoring is correct, ... what is stopping people from using a different computer? Or closing the laptop during non-use? Educational laptops are not (typically) meant to be loaned out so that people can use them for personal use like playing games, chatting on IM with friends, or talking on Skype outside of an educational scope, so I shouldn't imagine this would be that difficult given some discipline.

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This was on the local news a few days ago. From what I gathered watching that, it seems like nobody knew about the cameras thing when they agreed to taking home and using the laptops. That's why nobody just closed the laptop up or turned it away while changing or anything like that and that seems to be what has disturbed people about this.

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No. If they were a private entity, they still could not use them to spy on people in their own homes, since that goes well beyond the reasonable expectation of a user. As a government entity, they ought to be even more restricted in showing that anything they do is required to meet their narrow objectives as a school district. In particular, being a government entity, they ought to be held to strict privacy rules and disclosure rules.

There must be some nuance to your argument that I'm missing, sNerd.

Suppose I rent laptop computers. On the rental agreement I state something to the effect of, "Software and hardware technologies are installed on this computer to aid in its retrieval should the machine be stolen. In addition, this software and hardware may be used at the owner's (my) discretion to ensure this computer is not used in any illegal activities."

Are you arguing I wouldn't be able to use the laptop's camera to determine where the computer is, or how it is being used?

I'm not arguing the students knew about the district's ability to do this, though I would be really surprised if the district's lawyers didn't see this coming from a mile away and wrote it into some kind of agreement signed by the parents. If they didn't, then I think a fraud argument could certainly be made (the district represented the laptops as something other than what they really were).

My only argument is that the laptop is the property of the district, and it can do whatever it wants with its property. These students have no rights to laptops which abrogate the rights of the laptops' owner. Especially in this case where the students aren't even exchanging value for the laptops.

What about desktop computers in an office? Should the owner of the business, who owns the computers, be allowed to monitor what his employees are doing with his computers? Does it change anything if the employees are allowed to take the computers home? Does the owner's right to monitor what his employees are doing with his computers go by the wayside if they take them home?

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My only argument is that the laptop is the property of the district, and it can do whatever it wants with its property. These students have no rights to laptops which abrogate the rights of the laptops' owner.
This is not about what they can do with the laptops. It is about taking pictures of a student, with any equipment: owned, borrowed or stolen. Who owns the criminal's tools? The question is irrelevant, except in tracing the culprit. If I lease my phone line, does that give the phone company the right to wire-tap me without my consent at any point beyond my property line?

Further, as a government-owned entity, the school district ought to be able to do far, far less than a private owner of property.

Added: Of course, if all people who are on the other side of the camera are fully aware that the camera can be turned on to spy on them without any warning, I have no problem with it being turned on.

P.S. Please, don't say the student is not paying for school. Tax payers pay.

Edited by softwareNerd
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The general feeling I get here, and I don't know if I'm speaking out of turn (I don't intend to turn this into a debate, this'll be my last post on the topic), is that people have this across the board absolute policy that if that laptop enters the home no screenshots, and no facial captures (note the terminology, not house activity captures), are permitted at all, no matter what.

Not without the agreement of the homeowner, and the person who is being spied on, no. That's a pretty straight forward application of property rights.

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This is not about what they can do with the laptops. It is about taking pictures of a student, with any equipment: owned, borrowed or stolen.

Why can't the school take pictures of the student? If the student is aware, or has been informed, that such technology exists on the computer, and can be turned on without any warning, then the student agrees to such intrusion when he/she takes the computer.

If I lease my phone line, does that give the phone company the right to wire-tap me without my consent at any point beyond my property line?

I would say, "Yes." Why could they not? It is their property. Now, in an Objective society, with an Objective government, we'd have several different companies providing phone service (we already do, really), and they might advertise that they would never allow anyone to wire tap your phone. If your phone company doesn't guarantee wire-tap-free service, then choose another provider.

Just because we are customers doesn't mean we get to decide what a business can do with its property.

Further, as a government-owned entity, the school district ought to be able to do far, far less than a private owner of property.

Why? I don't know all the facts, but if the district is forcing students to take these laptops, then I would agree. However, if they're not forced to take them, or have them, then I don't see why the district should be any less entitled to its rights to use its property. (Now, I realize that sounds collective, but as you said, we taxpayers are actually paying for these laptops. So, in reality, I have a right to use my property how I see fit.)

Added: Of course, if all people who are on the other side of the camera are fully aware that the camera can be turned on to spy on them without any warning, I have no problem with it being turned on.

That's all I'm arguing.

P.S. Please, don't say the student is not paying for school. Tax payers pay.

I only meant that the exchange of value isn't as clear as in the case of my hypothetical where I owned a laptop rental store and someone rented a laptop from me.

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If everybody who came before the camera knew, clearly and unequivocally, that the camera could be turned on and their pictures taken, I assume this case would never have got as far as it did. From the little that has been reported, the district had not informed parents. Even if they were to do so, it cannot be some little mention. It has to be a clear declaration with rationale and risks laid out, and some type of opt out option provided. School do this for all sorts of things.

Even with that type of disclosure, the school (and a private party) might still run afoul of wire-tapping type laws with regards to an ignorant third-party.

Why? I don't know all the facts, but if the district is forcing students to take these laptops, then I would agree.
The school is a government entity. There are many things it may not do that a private entity may do.
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Not without the agreement of the homeowner, and the person who is being spied on, no. That's a pretty straight forward application of property rights.

I may have misread the posts, but one line caught my eye:

All students and faculty would sign a yearly technology use agreement with the school from K-12 (substituting guardian signatures for those too young) that outlined that all district computers were to be utilized for business concerning the activities of the district, being administration and education. It also was explained to all technology users and was made widely known that user's desktops and built-in cameras could and would be monitored at any given time.

It seems to me that he's stating that in the situation he's referring to, there is such an agreement in place. Perhaps you missed it.

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It seems to me that he's stating that in the situation he's referring to, there is such an agreement in place. Perhaps you missed it.
He was talking about the district where he worked, not the one that is currently in the news.

This is the type of thing for which a clause within an overall policy is insufficient. At the very least, it requires a specially highlighted agreement, like the situations where one has to initial a particular clause right next to the clause. I know that our school district sends a few pages of that type for parents to sign (e.g., permission to post photos of the kid -- without full-name -- on the school web-site). Also, the students' permission alone cannot be sufficient when the laptop is being taken to the parent's home. A parent's own consent must be sought. In addition, the parent should be offered a way to opt out of this, even if it means agreeing to reimburse the school if the laptop goes missing.

Since the school is a government entity, they also ought to be made to demonstrate that their procedures prevent the system from being abused with ease by (say) a wayward system operator.

In this case, one part of the school's procedure is that if someone took a loaner computer off campus against regulations, the camera could be activated. Such a procedure is inappropriate, and must be changed. Libraries don't install cameras in book to know who has kept them too long.

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