Webcam Flap Raises Big-Picture Privacy Issues

Experts say Pa. district could have put together a less intrusive approach.

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A lawsuit filed against a Pennsylvania school district that accuses officials of using laptop webcams to spy on students at home is prompting educators across the country to re-examine where protecting school computer property ends and invading students’ privacy begins.

The Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia finds itself defending against a potential class action after a student complained last month of being photographed inside his home by a webcam from a school-issued laptop computer and accused of selling drugs.

While the district told parents it only activated the webcams as part of an anti-theft measure, technology experts say school officials could have used far less intrusive methods such as GPS tracking devices. And school technicians and administrators across the country are already reconsidering their own anti-theft technologies, especially in districts that issue laptops to students for use at school and home as part of 1-to-1 computing programs.

“The issues raised by these allegations are wide-ranging and involve the meeting of the new world of cyberspace with that of physical space. Our focus will only be on whether anyone committed any crimes,” U.S. Attorney Michael Levy, of Pennsylvania’s Eastern District, said last week in a statement. He took the unusual step of confirming an FBI and U.S. Department of Justice investigation for possible wiretap and computer-use violations.

Harriton High School student Blake Robbins filed a federal lawsuit after he says Vice Principal Lynn Matsko used photographs taken from a webcam to talk to him about “improper behavior” at home. The suit charges that district employees remotely activated the webcam on his school-issued laptop computer and photographed him eating Mike and Ike candies, which officials mistook for narcotics.

Other Districts React

The district activated similar webcams after 42 laptops disappeared in the past 14 months. Eighteen were located, district spokesman Doug Young said last week. Mr. Young has declined to discuss whether Blake Robbins’ laptop was reported missing, because of the litigation, but said the district did not violate its policy to activate webcams only for that purpose.

The district’s two high schools issue Apple MacBook laptops to their 2,300 students.

This month, Education Week began a special technology feature that will appear in every issue of the newspaper, covering news, trends, and ideas about digital learning and administrative uses of tech tools in schools.

Read the winter issue of Education Week Digital Directions to learn more about digital tools for customizing learning, the role of e-learning in personalizing education, teacher use of whiteboards, Twitter in the classroom, and student perspectives about how schools could use technology more effectively.

Technology and privacy experts agree that GPS, “call home” software that monitors when outside users view network files, and other location-tracking software offer better results without raising privacy concerns.

“There are less intrusive ways to track stolen laptops, no question about it,” said Marc Rotenberg, a Georgetown University law professor who serves as the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

The company that owns the LANrev remote-activation software allegedly used by the Lower Merion district no longer promotes its use for anti-theft purposes.

“Webcam pictures are not useful in tracking down the culprit,” said Stephen Midgely, the vice president of global marketing for Vancouver, British Columbia-based Absolute Software. which recently bought the LANrev software. The user in the picture is often not the person who stole the computer, and the photos are usually inadmissible in court, he said.

Meanwhile, other school districts with 1-to-1 computing programs are already reacting to the lawsuit, including Kentucky’s McCracken County School District, which has begun removing tracking software from laptop computers assigned to high school students.

After learning about the controversy in Pennsylvania, McCracken County school technicians began removing computer software with the ability to access webcams and monitor usage on 2,170 laptops assigned to high school students.

Heath Cartwright, the technology director for the McCracken County schools, said the case in Pennsylvania prompted the removal of the technology, which is also intended to track stolen or lost computers.

In the Pueblo city district in Colorado, Director of Technology Danny Combs said his district doesn’t have a policy on the use of webcams installed in Dell Mini Netbooks used by 7th and 8th graders.

He suggested it would be a good idea to develop one for both school employees and the students using the netbooks, but added that it would take significant prowess for a student or a remote party to activate webcams on another computer.

“We also don’t have anything in the student user policy that would tell them not to try to do it to their friend—or enemy,” said Mr. Combs, who added that abuse of the webcams by anyone other than system administrators would be unlikely. “The user would have to enable remote control and turn over control of their computer to the remote party, or the remote party would have to be a talented hacker with the intent and ability.”

Despite the present privacy concerns, a Lower Merion network technician, Michael Perbix, marveled at LANrev’s theft-tracking potential in a May 2008 webcast.

Mr. Perbix said he had once used the feature to try to locate laptops mistakenly thought to be missing.

“By the time we found out they were back, I had to turn the tracking off, and I had a good 20 snapshots of the teacher and students using the machines in the classroom,” he said.

According to Mr. Rotenberg, the Georgetown University law professor, those photographs could also raise legal problems for the district, since officials have said students did not sign waivers agreeing to the hidden use of webcams.

Vol. 29, Issue 23, Pages 10-11

Published in Print: March 3, 2010, as Webcam Flap Raises Big-Picture Privacy Issues
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