FBI Investigating High Schools Alleged Webcam Spying

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News Posted: Tue, Feb 23 2010 3:30 PM
It's an acknowledged fact that modern technology, Google and the rise of social networking sites like Facebook have changed the rules when it comes to expectations of privacy. Most of the time, when we hear that these evolving expectations have tripped someone up, it's because an employee once considered a shoo-in for a job was disqualified when the potential employer found distasteful evidence in the candidate's MySpace profile, blog, or previously unmentioned extensive filmography in German and Japanese porn. In tumultuous times like these, it's understandable that employers and employees can both be caught unawares. Every now and then, however, an organization or individual will make such a mind-blowingly stupid decision that we're left collectively dumbstruck at such an awesome, frightening, and all-encompassing display of ineptitude.

Happily, today is one such day. Put on your helmets kids—we're headed to Philadelphia where a wealthy suburban school district is facing allegations of privacy invasion that would rouse a lawyer's...conscience faster than a trip to your local gentleman's club.

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Last November, Lower Merion School District student Blake J. Robbins was called to task by Vice Principal Lindy Matsko principal's office for allegedly engaging in improper behavior. The bombshell is that Robbins wasn't accused of doing anything on school grounds or even during the school day, but had done his naughty deeds in his own home. As evidence, Matsko cited a photo taken by Robbin's webcam without his knowledge or consent. Blake's parents contacted the Vice Principal, who confirmed that the school district had installed remote monitoring software that allowed it to activate the webcam of any of the Macbooks it provided to its 1800 students. Neither parents nor students were ever notified that this feature existed, nor were they provided with information on the school's remote monitoring policy.

In the wake of the incident, both the FBI and the DA of Montgomery County have announced they'll investigate to determine if privacy laws or federal regulations on remote wiretapping were violated through the school's actions. According to district spokesperson Doug Young, the school is vaguely aware it made a booboo. ""There was no specific notification given that described the security feature," Young said. "That... was a significant mistake."

Wearing one black sock and one blue sock is a mistake. Wearing one black sock, one white sock, and two different shoes when you're scheduled to give a presentation to the company CEO is a significant mistake. What Lower Merion has done falls under the category of "unbelievable world-class stupidity." Young insists that Lower Merion has only activated webcams in an attempt to find lost or stolen laptops, but there's a massive hole in that story. To date, the school has not challenged the issue at the heart of the lawsuit—namely, that the allegations of improper behavior on the part of Blake Robbins were made based on webcam evidence.

Think about that for a moment. Obviously the parents didn't know the laptops could be used for remote monitoring, or Blake's parents wouldn't have contacted the school for additional information. Blake himself could have lied about the existence of a webcam photo, but if there was no photo there would be no allegation of improper behavior at home. Furthermore, if Blake had entirely misrepresented the scenario that led to him being called on the carpet, you'd think the principal would have said so back in November.

As for the improper behavior itself, the family's attorney has stated that Blake was eating Mike and Ike's candy while using the computer. Legal experts and those possessed of common sense have jointly weighed in on the school district's behavior, noting the nearly limitless potential for abuse when the school district has the power to spy on its students at any time, place, or manner of its choosing. As a final bit of irony, we leave you with the last sentence of the flier originally distributed when the laptops were given out. "While other districts are exploring ways to make these kinds of incentives possible, our programs are already in place, it is no accident that we arrived ahead of the curve; in Lower Merion, our responsibility is to lead."

All we can say is, way to go.The original complaint filed by Blake's parents is here.
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3vi1 replied on Tue, Feb 23 2010 4:04 PM

I used to live not far from the area in question. I'm shocked by the stupidity of the school.

As far as I've read elsewhere, the laptop was never reported stolen - so the school had no reason to activate this software.

Hmmm... federal wiretapping... unlawful trespass.... what a bunch of idiots.  I hope they enjoyed their stint as big brother, and hope they didn't accidentally snap any kids changing clothes lest they get to see some real justice.

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rapid1 replied on Tue, Feb 23 2010 4:18 PM

Wow why can't some organization do something so blatantly idiotic to me. How could a state/county board be so blatantly idiotic as well. I wish as I said someone would do something like this to me I wanna be a millionaire for doing nothing to

They violated like 9 state rights or addendum's at least these people are going to get PAYED, and some school admins are going to be out of work indefinitely in there chosen profession.

Oh and for the taking drugs thing he was eating Mike and Ike candy, which they misconstrued as drugs. Then it is also specified as a Jury trial. With this being a first case type for this direct action that jury is going to make an example of the BOE and the county, and maybe on a civil case the Head administrative staff to.

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Inspector replied on Tue, Feb 23 2010 9:32 PM

HAHA thinking a kid was taking drugs but instead was taking candy just got them screwed over :P

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rapid1 replied on Wed, Feb 24 2010 2:48 AM

No veracious stupidity as well as thinking they had the right to violate someone else's rights is what screwed them. Anyone would know that hidden observation especially in this manor is inherently wrong. The thing that really gets me is this is the people who educate our children.

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ClemSnide replied on Wed, Feb 24 2010 10:07 AM

Here in Philadelphia, this is the only story on the local news. Since they were merely saying "engaging in improper activities," I of course put two and two together and came up with the idea that the kid was caught downloading porn on the school's computer, and doing the predictable thing that an adolescent would do after downloading said porn. (No offense, but I will continue to believe it until someone other than random voices on the Internet claim otherwise.)

I wonder how many jobs are going to be opening up in that school district? And how can I snag one of them?


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Herm replied on Wed, Feb 24 2010 11:33 AM

WOW, unbelievable. If they turned this kids webcam on, who is to say that some perv isnt watching other students. Im sure this wasnt the first webcam that was silently acivated. Doesn't add up to me, huge violation of constitutional rights...

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Dave_HH replied on Wed, Feb 24 2010 5:00 PM

Couldn't have said it better, Herm!

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rapid1 replied on Wed, Feb 24 2010 5:28 PM

I agree Herm. We also know how good apples security is. If one of these laptops had the wireless search on it would also be very easily logged into. So this would also mean they were inadvertently making minors very vulnerable as well.

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Inspector replied on Wed, Feb 24 2010 5:56 PM

@rapid i actually never thought about the possibilities of outside hackers hacking in to the systems and spying on these kids till u posted that. So having these software on board for any reason is stupid and does not benefit the kids but harm them.

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realneil replied on Wed, Feb 24 2010 6:25 PM

My great grandmother was RIGHT!!

She used to use a blanket to cover her legs when she watched TV so the guy in the box couldn't see up her skirt. This is the 2.0 version, that's all.

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Inspector replied on Wed, Feb 24 2010 7:16 PM

HA :D 3.0 would be them popping out of the screen Wink

But one thing is im never trusting a computer giving to me by my school now... (if they did Sad) lol

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Xylem replied on Wed, Feb 24 2010 11:09 PM

@ realneil - ROFL!!!

How stupid are the authorities at school. They should be put behind bars for use of appropriate technology without completely knowing how to escape if caught!! ;)

Same should apply for anythign not owned, like office laptops...

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rapid1 replied on Thu, Feb 25 2010 1:59 AM

Well especially Inspector in that from my house I can see a lot of wireless connections. Most consumers will grab a wireless link or router if the have broadband service. They basically just throw in the install CD and use default properties. Even some of the commercial buildings close that are on N protocol I can see and there all unsecured 7-1 or greater. Or they use as I said the default which is to all points and purposes no security anyway. So if I wanted to I could get into quite a few computers from my den. I don't broadcast my wireless network and run the highest security for a residential router (WPA2 instead of the WEP most people use), and a couple other security steps as well. So you would have to find my network first and crack the highest residential security method and translate 3 different number letter(cap and non cap) figure passwords. Most would give up after 2 passwords if they got that far.

Either way I can almost guarantee you these kids wireless connections were Wep or Wep 2 security at best which a monkey could hack in 15 minutes as it broadcasts all of its keys. All you have to do is know how to read them basically.

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ClemSnide replied on Fri, Feb 26 2010 2:00 AM

Kudos to your great-grandmother, realneil! One of my standup routines is about how our dads were ahead of their times. We thought they were just being cheap when they told us to put on a sweater instead of raising the thermostat... now we realize that they were reducing our carbon footprints before we knew taht was important!

But I imagine that a lot of kids are going to be taking an inch of electrical tape off their dad's rolls, to do essentially what your mee-mee-maw did.


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Just wait until the FBI pulls all the captured files (you know they were doing it to more than one student) and finds a couple of nude/semi-nude pictures. Child porn charges start flying and people are going to jail for a long time. Anyone think they won't find pictures like this? Hell, I would get warrants and collect up all the computers of anyone who had access to the software. You never know if that principle wasn't keeping some of the more interesting pictures handy for personal use.

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