February 19, 2010 9:24 pm

School used webcams to ‘spy’ on students at home

The Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia last year issued an Apple laptop to each of its 1,800 high-school students. Superintendent Christopher McGinley told parents the goal was “to provide students with 21st-century learning environments both at home and in school”.

What he did not tell them was that each laptop was equipped with security
software that allowed the school district to activate the computer’s webcam and view the students at any time, opening a virtual window into their lives.

This unnerving feature was revealed last week when a student and his
parents filed a class action lawsuit against the school district, alleging its actions amount to “spying” and violate federal laws and the Fourth Amendment.

According to the lawsuit, the student and his parents were made aware of the
district’s ability after the student was accused of “improper behaviour in his home”. As evidence, the school district presented a photograph taken from the webcam embedded in the laptop. It was not clear what the student was accused of.

The school district is now under fire for what many are deeming a violation of the students’ civil rights, and an invasion of privacy.

“This is dangerous and reprehensible,” said Parry Aftab of WiredSafety.org. “It violates the legal rights of parents and students.”

Ms Aftab and the student’s lawyers expressed concern that officials might have seen students in compromising situations and said they could also face child pornography charges.

In response, superintendent McGinley posted a letter on the district’s website.

He said: “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 webcam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.” Nonetheless, he said the feature was deactivated on Thursday.

Other schools have similar technology. A middle school in the South Bronx of New York City has installed software in the laptops issued to its students that allows officials to view whatever is displayed on the screen.

The school’s assistant principal spends part of each day monitoring what students are doing on their computer, often observing them use Photo Booth, a programme that uses the computer’s webcam to turn the screen into a virtual mirror. “I always like to mess with them and take their picture,” he said on Digital Nation, a Frontline programme that aired this month.

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