School issued computers as spy devices

February 20, 2010

Anyone with a school-issued computer ought to check it over, now.  And maybe put a towel over the thing.  Unplug it, and take the battery out.

And, oh, do I wish I had an AP Government class to discuss this with!

Did you hear the one about Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, school officials spying on students’ bedrooms?

Good discussion at the Volokh Conspiracy:  “Big Teacher Is Watching You?

According to the Complaint in Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (filed a week ago),

2. Unbeknownst to [high school students and their parents], and without their authorization, [high school officials] have been spying on the activities of [the students] by Defendants’ indiscrimina[te] use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District….23…. Plaintiffs were for the first time informed of [this] capability and practice by the School District when … an Assistant Principal at Harriton High School[] informed minor Plaintiff 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 embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the School District….

24. [The minor Plaintiff’s father] thereafter verified, through [the Assistant Principal], that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students’ personal laptop computer issued by the School District at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.

If this was indeed done, and if it was done without adequately notifying the students and their parents, this was clearly tortious, likely a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and possibly a statutory violation as well (though I haven’t looked closely at the statutory details). It is also appalling — school officials spying on children in their parents’ homes without the children’s and parents’ permission. Who thinks up such things?

Who thinks them up, and can we get them to wear a badge so we know they’re not in our school?

Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars already is on the story — a few good comments there.

A statement from the Lower Merion School District generally ignores the specifics of the allegations in the case, and claims that the monitoring of the self-contained web-cams was done only when a computer was reported stolen.  In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that a student was reprimanded for behaviors caught on the camera, while the student was at home.  The statement is very much what we would expect from a rich district caught doing something wrong after getting better advice from their attorneys than they thought they needed before they did the wrong thing.

An Associated Press story (here in the Washington Post) said the FBI has opened an investigation into whether school officials violated anti-wiretapping laws.

The suit filed is a civil suit.  Assuming its allegations to be correct, I think the plaintiffs may want to add RICO sections to the complaint.  Under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act a pattern of practices like illegal use of the webcams could easily be evidence to trigger RICO  penalties, which included treble damages.  Such a charge would also scare the textbooks out of school officials thinking they might want to do this in the future.

Comments at the Volokh Conspiracy, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and in the AP story in the WaPo all raised the spectre of child pornography.  If the computers caught images of children in their bedrooms, it might automatically qualify as child porn — and this would greatly complicate the case, and ramp up the noise surrounding it.

School districts who issue laptops to students, or teachers, should review the story and their own procedures and regulations.

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