Students at Harriton High School in Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia are given Apple MacBook laptops to use both at school and at home. Like all MacBooks, the ones issued to the students have a Webcam. And, in addition to the students' ability to use the Webcam to take pictures or video, the school district can also use it to take photographs of whomever is using the computer.
In a civil complaint (PDF) filed in federal court, a student at the school, Blake Robbins, said he received a notice from an assistant principal informing him that "the school district was of the belief that minor plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the Webcam."
The district said in a statement that the "security feature was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student." The district further explained that "upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the district's security and technology departments. The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator's screen." The district claims it has "not used the tracking feature or Webcam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."
Subsequently, district Superintendent of Schools Christopher W. McGinley sent a letter to parents saying that the security tracking feature is being disabled and that there will be "a thorough review of the existing policies for student laptop use" and a "review of security procedures to help safeguard the protection of privacy, including a review of the instances in which the security software was activated."
In the mean time, the Associated Press is reporting that the FBI is investigating the district and "will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws," according to an unnamed official who spoke to the AP.
In an interview with CBS Evening News, plaintiff Blake Robbins said he was unaware that the camera could be activated at his house. "I thought that there was no way that they could do that at my home," Robbins said, adding that the assistant principal "thought I was selling drugs, which is completely false."
On the CBS Early Show, Harriton High sophomore Savannah Williams said she keeps the laptop in her bedroom and says that its on while she is "getting changed, doing my homework, taking a shower, everything." She said she takes it into the bathroom with her to listen to music while showering. "I was shocked," she added. She said "everyone is talking about it at school...everyone was really worried about 'what are they watching me doing.'"
At least one student at Harriton isn't particularly worried about the administration spying on students. In a podcast interview, 16-year-old junior Jon Brodo said "I don't think anyone knows the true story...the problem is in this case is that there are so many rumors going around." He said that he is somewhat concerned, but "I do trust that the school district knows its bounds." Brodo said that most students, however ,"it's been pretty hectic. It's the conversation of everybody. I've seen the kid (plaintiff Blake Robbins) in the hallways. The atmosphere is definitely pro the kid and antischool district."
On its Web site, Lower Merion School District says that it was one of the first districts in the country to issue laptops to all high-school students. And that is an extremely laudable effort on the part of the district to bring learning into the 21st century. It's also commendable that the school put some thought into a recovery system to help locate lost and stolen laptops but it's quite unfortunate that they used a system that enables administrators to take photographs of students using the machines away from school.
Of course, no judge has yet ruled on the plaintiff's claim and the school has denied that it has used the cameras for anything other than helping recover missing machines. But even if that turns to be the case, the mere fact that staff members had the ability to turn on the camera remotely is problematic. While it's fair to assume that the school could monitor what students do with district owned equipment (just as employers can with equipment used by employees even when they're away from the office), I can understand why students and their parents would be shocked to learn that officials could remotely turn on the camera.
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