Robert X. Cringely at PC World:
In case you haven’t been following the plot of Webcamgate, starring the Lower Merion School District in Southeastern Pennsylvania and a cast of thousands, here’s the skinny.
Last week the Robbins family, whose son Blake attends LMSD’s Harriton High, filed a class-action suit against the district alleging that it’s been spying on its students via webcams on school-supplied MacBooks.
The suit came about after Blake Robbins was called into the assistant principal Lindy Matsko’s office last November to discuss “inappropriate behavior” he was displaying — at home. The proof? A snapshot of him taken with his laptop’s Webcam.
Apparently Matsko thought Blake was popping pills. According to Robbins, he was merely eating candy: Mike-N-Ikes. (A classic gateway drug — before you know it, he’ll be deep into Good-N-Plenty and then totally hooked on Tic Tacs.)
The idea that the school could peer into the Robbins’ home — and by implication, the homes of nearly 2,400 other students in the district — blew their minds. It also may have violated dozens of federal and state laws regarding privacy, wiretapping, and electronic communications, as alleged in their suit PDF.
The school district’s response? Yes, we have the ability to activate students’ webcams remotely, but it’s strictly used for tracking lost or stolen laptops, says school superintendent Dr. Christopher W. McGinley. No, we didn’t tell any of the students or their families about it. Oops. Our bad.
Jeff Porten at PC World:
How exactly did the school district get access to students’ Webcams? Well, Lower Merion installed security software on the Macs it issued to 2300 students, but never disclosed the possibility that they could be remotely monitored for audio and video input–which could be illegal under federal and state laws governing topics like wiretaps and computer-instrusion.
An analysis of how MacBooks could be used this way was posted by a security researcher writing under the (presumed) pseudonym of Stryde Hax. According to Hax, Lower Merion used LANRev software (recently rebranded Absolute Manage) to implement both the system lockdown and remote access on the MacBooks. LANRev includes camera, screenshot, and IP location tracking in its monitoring as an antitheft tool.
Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young claimed that this antitheft tracking was used 42 times when laptops were reported stolen, and led to the recovery of 28 of them. He said the policy of using Webcam shots only for devices reported stolen was never broken, but he couldn’t comment specifically on the Robbins case.
That contradicts anecdotal evidence compiled by Hax, who searched message boards used by Lower Merion high school students, and found many reports of iSight cameras powering up, as indicated by a brief flicker of the LED light next to the camera. Some students even put tape over their iSight cameras to prevent them from operating, but most were assured by the district that the light was a “common MacBook glitch.” The LANRev software apparently disabled the cameras for all other uses; students were unable to use PhotoBooth or video chat, so apparently most of them believed that the camera did not work at all.
Doug Hanchard at ZDNet:
Assistant Vice Principal Lynn Matsko of Harriton High School, who is at the center of current allegations of being personally involved in the Lower Merion District School board’s webcam spy scandal, has launched a vigorous defense.
CBS News Radio station KYW Newsradio 1060 recorded Matsko’s statement in a press conference.
Matsko did not go into details of who is being investigated.
It should be noted, all reports filed by ZDNet, CNET, and KYW Radio, that at no time has anyone suggested that the web cams were recording motion video with audio. There are news reports suggesting that complete video’s including audio have been recorded by Harriton H.S. and archived, none of which can be verified after several attempts to do so. Still images have been admitted to being ‘archived’ by School spokesperson Doug Young. If accurate, this potentially limits what charges the FBI agents would recommend to federal attorney Michael Levy (Philadelphia) to file against Lower Merion District School officials. While Vice Principal Matsko fights to be absolved of personal accusations of spying on her students, Matsko still has to answer to the school board and investigators as supervisor of the staff of her school’s IT department. Repercussions including possible suspension or dismissal from the board. Matsko repeatedly stated school officials continue to fully cooperate with local and federal investigators.
Further research reveals that the Lower Merion School Board was using software installed on all its Mac Laptops developed by LANrev which specializes in asset tracking. LANrev maybe familiar to some of you; the company was acquired last year by Absolute Software, based in Vancouver, B.C., makers of LOJACK for cars and computers.
John Biggs at Crunch Gear:
The Lower Merion School District (motto: “We’re Building the Future Police State”), caught using a remote monitoring service on school-supplied laptops while the kids were at home, had some pretty creepy rules on the books to ensure compliance. To wit we find, thanks to strydehax, these gems:
* Possession of a monitored Macbook was required for classes
* Possession of an unmonitored personal computer was forbidden and would be confiscated
* Disabling the camera was impossible
* Jailbreaking a school laptop in order to secure it or monitor it against intrusion was an offense which merited expulsion
Expulsion, eh? Pretty rough stuff. But shouldn’t the school district be able to protect their investment? Well, the reason this all came up was that a kid in the district was caught eating Mike-n-Ikes at home. The principal called him in for eating candy and, presumably, this school watching this kid in his own room. This means, in an effort to prevent theft, there was some potential pedophilia happening here.
MadisonConservative at Hot Air:
This poor kid is being harassed and accused of criminal activity, but we all know situations that potentially could be far worse. Suppose cameras were turned on when students were getting dressed, or were just out of the shower. Suppose they were on when students were doing one of the many activities that becomes common during puberty. Lately, it’s become clear that some teachers are exploring “perks” of their profession. Hell, we’re lucky if we can undo the more and more common brainwashing being used on kids when they get home.
So which scares you more about your children and technology? To Catch A Predator, or this? Frankly…I’m torn.
“At no time have I ever monitored a student via a laptop webcam,” said Matsko, who is in her 25th year working for Lower Merion School District, “nor have I ever authorized the monitoring of a student via a laptop webcam, either at school or in the home. And I never would.”
Nobody ever claimed that Matsko personally conducted webcam surveillance of students. Nor does the complaint allege that she gave some kind of order to individually target any particular student. If we believe the district’s claim about how it uses its remote monitoring software—and there’s some reason for doubt—then the laptop camera was probably activated by a tech trying to determine whether the student had taken home a temporary “loaner” laptop that was supposed to remain at school. The tech may have then seen what looked like drugs on the student’s desk, and forwarded the image to Matsko. In other words, everything Matsko says here and the allegations made by the student and his family can both be wholly true.
She later added that, in more than a decade as assistant vice principal, she had “never disciplined a student” for actions beyond school property that had no connection to a school-related event, apparently in response to the Robbins lawsuit’s allegation the student learned of the webcam surveillance from a school disciplinary action.
Again, nothing here is actually inconsistent with the complaint. The claim made there is that the student was called into Matsko’s office and accused of “inappropriate behavior” at home, captured by the school webcam. There’s no mention of any disciplinary action being taken. The student has since explained that he was questioned about possession of something that appeared to be drugs, but which he says were Mike & Ike candies (of which he is apparently a notoriously ravenous consumer). Maybe he explained this and they believed him. Or maybe they didn’t, but decided to drop it since there was no real way to prove otherwise.
UPDATE: William Bender
UPDATE #2: More Atrios