Irate parents in Pa. say schools use 'peeping tom technology'

FBI investigates, federal prosecutors subpoena documents in MacBook spying case, say reports

The parents of a Pennsylvania high school student have asked a federal judge to bar school district personnel from switching on cameras in school-issued MacBook laptops, calling the security feature "peeping tom technology."

Federal officials have also stepped up their investigation of Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa., according to reports published Saturday. The Associated Press said that the FBI was exploring whether district officials broke federal wiretapping and electronic surveillance laws, while the Philadelphia Inquirer cited sources who said federal prosecutors have subpoenaed documents from school officials.

In their motion Friday, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., asked U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois to issue a restraining order preventing the district from remotely activating the webcams on student notebooks. They also requested that the judge block the district from recalling the laptops from students, saying that they believe school officials will then wipe the MacBooks' hard drives to delete evidence of any camera activation.

Last week, the Robbins family sued the district, accusing it of spying on students and students' families using the MacBooks' cameras.

Two days after the lawsuit was filed, district officials said they had disabled the camera functionality of a feature designed to locate lost, missing or stolen laptops. However, that wasn't enough for the Robbins, who submitted their Friday motion on behalf of their 16-year-old son, Harriton High School student Blake Robbins.

"There can be no assurances that the School District will disable the use of the remote webcam or, once deactivated, make an internal decision to reactive the webcam," the motion argued.

Elsewhere in the motion, the Robbins labeled the camera functionality "peeping tom technology," and disputed the district's account that cameras had been activated only when a notebook was reported lost or stolen. "[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 motion said.

According to the original complaint, Robbins was accused by a Harriton High School assistant principal of "improper behavior in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop as evidence. In an appearance on CBS' "Early Show Saturday Edition," Robbins said he was accused by the assistant principal of selling drugs and taking pills, but he claimed the pictures taken by his MacBook's camera showed him eating candy.

On Friday, Christopher McGinley, the superintendent of Lower Merion, sent another letter to district parents, acknowledging that the district had turned on laptop cameras 42 times thus far in the 2009-2010 school year. As he had earlier in the week, McGinley again said that the webcams were activated only as part of an effort to locate stolen or missing machines. Just 18 of the missing MacBooks were recovered or found after the cameras were turned on.

McGinley also said that only two members of the district's technology department have access to the theft-recovering feature, and expressly denied that the assistant principal who confronted Robbins was allowed to trigger the camera activation.

The district has hired the Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr LLP to represent it in the lawsuit, according to court documents. Henry Hockeimer, a partner with Ballard Spahr, will also help the district conduct a review of district policies and suggest improvements, said McGinley in his Friday letter to parents.

McGinley has admitted that students and parents were not told of the computer tracking feature or its remote camera activation capability. "There was no explicit notification that the laptop contained the security software," he said in his letter of Friday. "This notice should have been given and we regret that was not done."

In a Q&A section of the letter, McGinley said that students could mask the camera lens on their MacBooks if they wished. "There is no requirement that a student use the camera's standard webcam feature," he said. Some media reports have quoted high school students in the district as saying they had taken to slapping Post-It notes over the camera lens.

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Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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