Big Brother Goes High Tech
School officials accused of “spying” on students at home through webcams on school-supplied Macs
In what has been dubbed “Webcamgate,” Pennsylvania high school student Blake Robbins and his parents have sued his school district alleging that school personnel remotely activated software that allowed them to photograph Robbins in his bedroom through a laptop supplied by the district.
Starting in 2009, the Lower Merion School District (LMSD) distributed more than 3000 MacBook laptops to students and teachers. All of the laptops were equipped with webcams.
TheftTrack software was installed on each laptop, which allowed school officials to remotely activate the webcam and take photographs and “screenshots”—images of what the user is viewing on his laptop, including email and instant messaging.
School officials made the intentional decision not to tell students and staff about this “special” feature, which was intended to help locate lost or stolen laptops.
According to an internal investigation by LMSD, over a two-year period, TheftTrack captured and stored on the district’s server over 58,000 photographs and screenshots from school-supplied laptops, including photos of students and teachers in class. That number includes 7,256 images from laptops issued to teachers.
While the law firm that conducted the investigation concluded in May that there was “no evidence that [TheftTrack] was used to ‘spy’ on students,” the firm’s report also quoted this email exchange between two district IT personnel discussing images captured by TheftTrack: “This is awesome. It’s like a little LMSD soap opera,” and her co-worker replied, “I know, I love it!”
Some teachers became suspicious because a light above the webcam would come on from time to time. So they placed tape over the camera lens, according to the report.
Over a 15-day period in the fall of 2009, Robbins’ laptop took 218 screenshots and 210 photos, including shots of him sleeping and partially undressed. Robbins alleges in his lawsuit that he found out about the spying capacity of his laptop after an assistant principal accused him of “improper behavior in his home” and said she had a photo from his laptop webcam of him taking pills in his bedroom. The photo does show him eating something, but Robbins says it was Mike and Ike candies. The school district claims that it activated TheftTrack only to locate lost or stolen laptops, but conceded that it inadvertently let the feature continue running after some laptops had been recovered and returned to students.
The U.S. Department of Justice has announced that the FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the scandal, and last May a federal judge issued an order allowing federal agents to view the webcam images stored on the district’s server.
Also in May, the judge issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the school district from using webcams to monitor students. The district’s internal investigation cost $550,000, and the district is in litigation with its insurance carrier over expenses arising from Webcamgate.
The Robbins lawsuit has not yet been set for trial.
—Michael D. Simpson
NEA Office of General Counsel
Printed with the permission of the Philadelphia Inquirer