∞ School officials remotely activate MacBook Web cam, take picture of kid

The Lower Merion School District is in hot water today over its use of a MacBook Web cam. A lawsuit filed February 11 in U.S. District Court, says school officials used a school-issued MacBook to spy on a student. Apparently the unnamed officials believed the kid was “was engaged in improper behavior in his home.”

The school’s assistant principal confronted the student about his improper behavior and used a picture taken from the Web cam as evidence, according to the lawsuit filed by Michael and Holly Robbins, the boy’s parents.

The lawsuit contends the school district violated federal and state wiretapping laws, violated students’ civil rights and the act represented an invasion of privacy.

Responding to the allegations Thursday night, the school district denied using the technology as described in the lawsuit. In an FAQ posted to its Web site by Superintendent Dr. Christopher McGinley, the school explained why the remote tracking feature was installed on the laptops.

“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. 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 web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.”

Updated: 4:45 pm PT, Feb. 18, 2010 — Added the school districts response.



  • Thomas

    what the hell is "improper behavior" ?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/jdalrymple Jim Dalrymple

      Could be almost anything.

      • Thomas

        ok, new question, why does the school care what the student is doing AT HOME!

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/jdalrymple Jim Dalrymple

          Yeah, that seems wrong. Should have contacted the parents and a whole bunch of other things.

    • Eric

      Considering some school districts, studying evolution, global warming or seeking to make sure people who are down and out in terms of health care would qualify as improper behavior. :D

  • http://tewha.net Steven Fisher

    Wow, I wonder how they managed it. I'm pretty sure a MacBook with stock software can't take photos of its user remotely. I'm also pretty sure the light is going to come on for a photo, although if the room was well lit and it was brief enough maybe the user wouldn't notice.

    Is there any evidence this actually happened, as opposed to being a bullshit reason for how he "knew" given by the principal?

    • Lucas

      not with stock software. if you have remote desktop installed or use 'back to my mac' via Mobileme. and since this is a school you can bet they had something on there to track the laptop (like lojack) and possibly other non stock software

      here's my personal thoughts. the laptop belongs to the school/district. then I say that, with prior notice and signed consent, the school has the right to monitor activity on the laptop and treat any infringing behavior such as looking up porn or downloading torrented movies and/or music as a violation of school rules. again, with prior notice (including what are and are not the 'legal' uses of the loaner) and consent. You won't give consent, you don't get the laptop of course. but at least you would know the risks.

      that said, turning on the web cam is hot water. how would they know that the child was decent. for all they know, they'd flip it on while this young man (or a young woman) was getting undressed and end up with a shot of his bare body. which would be likely be considered child pornography. even if they destroyed it right away, there's still likely trouble over the fact that it was possible.

  • http://twitter.com/ShawnL @ShawnL

    Here's the argument against a front facing camera on the ipod.

  • http://twitter.com/ShawnL @ShawnL

    make that iPAD. (oops)

  • Enyce

    Could be that the kid used the built-in camera to take some pictures himself, laptop was being administered when it was brought into school, and the picture was discovered within the laptop. Won't know until there's more detail to the story.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/edumaccomments Michael

    The whole "monitoring" students reminds me of this video from Frontline…

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalna

    I think it is later on in the clip when on administrator demonstrates how he can monitor students checking themselves out in Photo Booth.

  • Predrag

    HOw about this scenario: A teen is engaged in a Skype conversation with a cool school girl. One thing leads to another and (perhaps on a dare), he does things in front of the camera. She snaps the picture using Skype and the picture makes its way to the principal. Once there, this principal could easily have "faked" taking a picture remotely in order to scare the kid. And the kid, being a teenager, wants to avoid massive embarrassment among peers, so nothing is out of the question, including even a lawsuit.

  • James Wu

    Still sounds fishy to me…

    If they knew the student had the laptop, why would they have to activate the feature to retrieve a stolen/missing laptop?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/jdalrymple Jim Dalrymple

      Agreed. Something just doesn't make sense here. But it seems clear what their defense will be.

  • http://twitter.com/av1k @av1k

    This is an example using technology for the reasons we fear it could be. I don't know what else to say, really…It's sad, and pretty underhanded on the school's side, from the looks of it. It also feels like the evidence of what they know / don't know is flimsy, at best…I am curious to hear more followup on this matter.

    Thanks, Jim!

  • Norm

    If he was in possession of a stolen laptop, then the school district has every right to take the little criminals picture

  • Kva

    Did anyone posting even read the article? The only time they say that they use this feature is if the laptop is lost or stolen. If this is the case they are totally within their rights. Sorry if the guy trying to swipe the laptop feels violated.

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  • Merry Prankster

    To Kva: Actually it isn't. Even if the school was tracking a stolen laptop, it was still an illegal wire tap. The only way for some to legally take pictures in your private home is with your permission or if law enforcement does it after they've gotten a court order.

    If the laptop was stolen, it should have been reported to the police. The school district could have told the police they had a way to see who stole the laptop. Then a judge could have determined if it was proper to take pictures inside a private home to catch a thief. He then could have issued a "John Doe" warrant for the proper authorities to do the spying. Proper authorities who've been trained on what they can and can't do.

    What the school district did is a crime and should be treated as such.

  • http://www.nooksurfer.com NookSurfer

    I'd really like to understand the meaning behind this. I think this is a bit overboard, I'm sure there are other security measures the school can take in trying to protect it's property from being stolen. Plus, if the laptop wasn't stolen or reported stolen, why would they need to turn the feature on anyways…

  • Guy

    Well for one thing. I doubt seriously the laptop was stolen, since the kid was reprimanded for "innapropriate behavior" and not handed over to the authorities. Another thing, is the taking of a picture, even though the laptops can come stock with the software "back to my mac" for remote assistance. This allows another user to activate the camera and see what's on the screen. I think it was devious of the school to activate the camera without the "stolen" alert, and it wasn't a one time thing. It's already been admitted that the feature was used about 40 times in just over a year.. A serious invasion of privacy and a Major breakdown of what should be trust in the school systems. Spying on people is bad enough, Spying on our children is outlandish!!

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  • Confused Reader

    Wait, so they did this to “this” student? How many other students have they done this to without anyone reporting it? Have they just been randomly spying on their students? These are students! Some people leave their Macbooks on for long periods of time, even as they’re doing unrelated things! What if one of the students was undressing or doing something private during one of the times they spied on their students????

    There’s no justification for this, on top of invasion of privacy violation of rights and wiretapping laws this potentially goes into the areas of child pornography!!!!

    This is not acceptable! This is not acceptable at all. Anyone that had access to remotely viewing students through the webcams on their macbooks needs to be subjected to serious and in depth investigations regardless of whether they were responsible for this particular incident or not.