School spycam case raises FBI eyebrows

Somebody's lying in the case of school laptops that watch students, & it may take a federal investigation to unveil the truth

Somebody's fibbing in the case of a Pennsylvania school that using Webcams in loaned laptops, and now the FBI may have to sort out the truth.

CNN reports that federal authorities are investigating the case of 15-year-old Blake Robbins v. the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania, a class action lawsuit uncovered by BoingBoing last week. The FBI hasn't confirmed the investigation; CNN's report comes from an anonymous police official, who says the feds will look into whether federal wiretap or computer intrusion laws were violated.

In the lawsuit, Robbins claims that an assistant principal at Harriton High School used photos from his laptop's Web cam to accuse him of "improper behavior." He later told an ABC News affiliate that the school mistook a pill-shaped Mike & Ike candy for drugs.

The school confirmed that its laptops can remotely monitor Web cam input, but said the security feature was only used to locate lost, missing or stolen laptops. The school explicitly denies that an assistant principal used a Web cam photo to discipline Robbins, or that administrators even have the ability to remotely monitor laptops themselves. Only two members of the school's technology department can access the feature, the school said. In any case, the school apologized for not clearly describing the software in the usage agreement families are required to sign.

Clearly, the school and Robbins are telling different stories. It's not clear what, exactly, the FBI will look into, but given that both sides are in agreement on the other key facts -- that the laptops have Web cams that can be remotely turned on, and that families weren't clearly told about the software -- the issue of discipline for "improper behavior" seems like the most likely target for the feds.

If there's any truth to Robbins' story, it'll be a sobering tale of how intrusive technology in the name of security can be abused. Either way, the feature for recovering laptops was poorly implemented, and should've at least given families the final say in turning on monitoring software.

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Jared Newman

PC World (US online)
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