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back to article US school comes out fighting over webcam spy claim

The UK agency in charge of IT in UK schools has insisted there is no chance of the government's free laptops program exposing the bedroom activities of British students. The calming words for British parents comes after a US school district was sued for allegedly spying on a student in his bedroom via the webcam on his school …

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Megaphone

"It Couldn't Happen Here" - Oh Really?

Add scope creep and this "government's" obsession with control freakery and yes it could happen. Remember that this is the "government" which gutlessly stood by and allowed BT & Phorm to monitor and profile thousands of internet users' data. This is also the government that has dropped plans to give the ICO the teeth and cojones it needs.

It can happen here.

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Anonymous Coward

Possibly not..

It could work something like logmein so not need for a vpn. There are plenty of virus infections that do this kinda stuff. See spector pro which sends stuff via E-mail. There are hundreds of ways this could be done while by passing home 'security' measures. the students that were smart did the best thing... blu tak over the web cam. Like to see a hacker get past that. Coincidently that is what all my friends do just in the off chance someone does get in.

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Re: Firewall

> the student would have had to have the VPN connection

Not at all, there are plenty of apps that will do this sort of thing without a VPN, logmein123 for example

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Grenade

Blu tak

Several people have suggested a lump of blu tak. If you expect the school may actually be watching you, how about propping up an appropriate message in front of the camera?

If that doesn't stop them, try an inappropriate picture, or perhaps inappropriate cartoon of the headmaster.

And if that doesn't stop the perverts spying on kids in their bedrooms, try goatse.

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Where's the rest of the story?

"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."

That's quite a clear claim that they have only ever used the technology when a laptop has been "lost, stolen or missing". So in this case, which of those three was it? Either they're flat out lying, or this story is missing some very important information. Perhaps the truth is less interesting.

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Anonymous Coward

You couldn't make it up.

Seriously?.......They did this?........For real?....... And expected to get away with it?....... Seriously?..For real serious!?!?! Your'e joking right?

It reads like the plot of some kids drama series.

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Slight Contradiction

So they have an image of the student taken using the spy kit, which is only used when laptops are stolen or lost. So was the laptop reported stolen or lost? I assume not, so this make their statement complete and utter tosh.

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Ugh

"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."

So was the laptop lost, stolen or missing? No, I thought not.

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Big Brother

What is the lesson here?

What we have learned is Big Brother is watching. And that learning is a life-long process.

The school's defense is that the camera is only ever used to locate stolen lappies. So had the laptop in question been reported stolen? I suspect not...

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FAIL

Lost or stolen?

"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."

So which was it? Lost, stolen, or missing? Evidently it was found again - sitting at the student's desk.

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Anonymous Coward

1984

I love the way we constantly get closer to Orwell's vision. On a slightly more serious note, potentially, couldn't the School face criminal charges from the production of child pornography? Assuming the webcam captured said acts.

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Pint

If There Is...

...a camera built into the laptop, it would be trivial to include remote activation in "courseware" that the school provides.

Ditto url tracking and keylogging for that matter.

When I went to school, cameras still required film, and computers were something i read about in sci-fi books and built for science fair.

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Big Brother

Easy fix

Gaffer tape to the rescue once again.

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Paranoia

I leave my webcam unplugged on my desktop when I'm not using it, or pointing at the wall, and have been known to leave something over the webcam on the laptop. Of course, it's harder to do something about the built-in microphone.

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Big Brother

Fight back

Are the students too technology-dependant not to put a lens cap on the camera and a blob of blu-tak over the mic? I believe most laptops also come with an OFF button.

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Stop

Yes but ...

... it may be that the laptop was providing the ...errr... stimulus for the controversial behaviour, so it couldn't be switched off at the time.

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Anonymous Coward

RE: Yes but

I don't think he was wanking. I recon he was making a joint on his bed or something and just happened to be left on.

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WTF?

For those of us in the Colonies

What the hey is "blu-tak"?

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titular thingy

Blu-Tak is a kind of adhesive putty that is reusable. Generally used to put posters up on bedroom walls or office walls in a non-destructive way :)

There are more uses for it but that's the main one

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Agreed

....because if he had been surfing for pr0n, it probably would have gone via the schools proxy server and they could have disciplined him via the url logs.

Yes, he could possibly have bypassed the proxy, but if he was that savvy, he probably would have covered the webcam as well.

Hope the school have the book thrown at them for this.

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WTF?

To paraphrase the West Wing..

"you want Government that's just small enough to fit inside your bedroom"

fiction meet reality.

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Law
Big Brother

ermmmmm....

"There are no further details of what this improper behaviour might constitute – and readers must draw their own conclusions as to the sort of behaviour a teenage school student might indulge in, if left alone in his bedroom with a PC."

One would assume the improper behaviour of a teenage boy with a laptop would be something daft like doing homework or tidying their room, rather than doing the required right of passage - surfing for porn.

I'm assuming if kids can get themselves arrested for texting boyf/girlf pics of themselves in the nookie, under naughty child images laws... then the persons who set this up, and also the persons who operated the spyware can be arrested for some sort of child abuse law too... should be pretty cut and dry, why would they need to go on about 4th amendments, stick em on the register and be done with it! :)

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Improper

According to a post from one of his classmates, the student in question is a well-known weed smoker and general party animal. Apparently, the best guess floating around his school is that the weed smoking triggered the need to snap a pic.

Apparently, also, the teachers whose students use those laptops are *required* by the administration to spend part of their workday monitoring the webcams and snapping pictures of anything they believe to be against the Acceptable Use Policy (which, as noted in the article, contains not a hint of this remote observation practice).

So, this is not just about a single webcam photo, but even more ludicrous, it is about a school system that requires its employees to spy on the students in their homes for at least a couple of hours each day. In this instance, a photo was taken. But what about all of the rest of those hours where no photo was taken? The employee was just "watching". Uggh.

And how much of an idiot is that assistant principal who exposed the whole scheme by publicly announcing their capability?!? "We don't do that ... and, oh yeah, your home dope smoking that we caught in this webcam photo is improper." Dork.

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FAIL

A small point that might be worth mentioning...

... the laptop wasn't registered as stolen. Do they monitor all the logs just in case they don't recognize the user?

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Anonymous Coward

I work for a home access provider

And I can tell you there is nothing in our packages that can do this.

All and I mean ALL installed programs must be reported to BECTA and they approve all of them.

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Stop

school guilty of making child pornography?

If the webcam was involved and if the improper behaviour was... well, what it might have been...

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hmm.

So the laptops come with "a tracking facility that would be used in case a laptop was stolen...This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop."

How does that square with the case in question? Inappropriate behaviour of a student in their bedroom doesn't really equate to a stolen laptop, does it?

Something's being missed here.

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FAIL

Nothing missing...

What's happening is that the school district is setting up the person who actually used the laptop's camera and reported the 'inappropriate' behavior for violating stated guidelines.

The statement from the School Board does nothing but set up a defense and limit its liability.

If the student was under the age of 17 and the 'inappropriate' behavior involved exposing his 'naughty bits', then the school administrator would be guilty of child pornography and would be forced to register as a sex offender.

It could be that the student was sitting in front of his laptop, and lit up a bong or something. We don't know...

The bottom line is that the school district is in very hot water on this one. Also it sets up other potential lawsuits or a class action lawsuit by other parents....

So by making this statement, the School District will toss the school employee under the bus unless the school employee can show that they were directed to do this by the school district itself.

Fail because there are other less invasive security measures that would accomplish the same thing.

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Anonymous Coward

Lies!

"This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop."

Uh, guess not, which is why the parents are suing. If my kids ever get a school issued laptop, I think a spot of duct tape would prevent this.

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Big Brother

Duct Tape...

.. over aforementioned web cam would seem to be a low tech, low cost, solution to "spy by video"!

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I agree

I always use duct tape while engaged in improper behaviour, don't know about you!

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Minor Corrections

It is spelled "Lower Merion" with one "r", and it is just outside Philadelphia, not IN Philadephia. Minor points, but my home city gets enough bad press.

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Bronze badge

improper behavior in his home??

Er, the last 3 words are the most damning in this matter. In his home, FFS!.

OK, if he was 'cracking one off' (normal for a teenage lad) - but left the computer on - and was monitored without his knowledge, that's likely to be (UK-wise) assault. Plus, it'd be the most lucrative wank in Christendom, given the US's love for litigation.

It does say an image from the webcam was captured, doesn't mention any website he was visiting. He might just have got over-excited by the sheer beauty of calculus, for all we know.

Now, as the PDF states he was a minor, have we got paedophilia, too?

Let's bung the DMCA law into the mix. Like pizza-dough, it seems it can be stretched as far as you want.

Item 26 in the suit is very concerning. "Defendants...have never disclosed..ability to capture images from any location...". Was it running Windows, by any chance? That means any Tom, Dick and Harry conceivably could, not just the education authority.

The plaintiffs have requested jury trial. It probably won't come to that, there'l be an 'out-of-court' settlement, conditional on the usual gagging order, therefore ensuring "Justice must be done, and must be seen to be done" is a complete load of bollox.

Oh, this one's gonna be fun to watch!

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Creepy

Just FYI, it's Lynne Matsko, not Lindy Matsko, and Lower Merion is a suburb of Philadelphia, not in Philadelphia.

It's so sad that another Philly area native has set the bar even lower than it already was. What's even sadder is that it's made news internationally. Lynne Matsko should be jailed, if anything for stupidity. I'm still amazed this is only a civil matter and that the police aren't involved and no one has been arrested. This is creepy and borderline predatory. The school and all school employees involved should be charged with conspiracy, invasion of privacy, and child endangerment. Objectively, how is this any different than the creepy perv next door hiding a video camera in the neighbor's bedroom? Throw the book at them and set an example. Technology is getting creepy enough as it is without us having to worry about our teachers and principles watching our kids in the bedroom.

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Really?

"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."

Surely that's just what happened, unless it wasn't the boy's laptop.

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RW

Simple analysis

Whoever decided to use this feature is simply stupid and not clued in to privacy issues.

From what's been said in the press ("inappropriate behavior"), the school board clearly used this feature to simply spy on a student. Denials are merely lies.

Further, what the student does on his own time is his business and not the schools. Schools may be in loco parentis but only during school hours - or so it seems to me.

Stupidity and dishonesty and control-freakism. (Just like NuLabour.) That's all. Nothing more to see. Move along folks.

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S C

How is it...

...the school's responsibility to punish a student for 'improper behaviour' not only outside school hours and off of school property, but IN THE STUDENT'S OWN HOME? The sneaky use of the web-cam is just the means to an end.

Or am I missing something obvious about school authorities in the U.S.?

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Schools policing students

You're not missing anything at all. It is not the right or obligation of the school to police students off school property. School administrators aren't cops, and obviously don't know enough about policing to understand privacy rights and civil liberties. A student can be suspended, expelled, etc. for being charged with illegal activity, but only when charged through the proper legal channels - i.e. charged, tried, and convicted.

Public schools in the US have been increasingly pushing this line and it's getting scary. What is considered "inappropriate" by a public school is technically held to the same standard as law, being only what is illegal. More and more cases of children being expelled for personal behaviors that fall within the bounds of legality are cropping up. Recently a teenage girl was charged as a sex offender after her school found out she sent a picture of herself in a bra to a male colleague who was also a minor.

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Big Brother

How many other children were spied on?

How many times was this spyware used on the children before they happened to find a picture that they wanted to take action about? They didn't just chance on it the first time, it must have been a *lot*.

Which makes complete nonsense of their claim that they only use it if the laptop is reported missing.

And what the hell right have the school got to decide that what a student does at home in his own bedroom is "improper behavior"? It is none of their damn business. They didn't cite 'criminal' behaviour, or anything else they might have stretched to a justification, just 'improper'.

Gods help a country where a child may never ever experiment with anything that some arrogant adult busy-body might find 'improper'. What, they might even discover what bits of their own body look like? How terrible! They ought to be kept in utter ignorance right up until the complete disaster of their wedding night!

SMITH, WINSTON! WHY AREN'T YOU DOING YOUR HOMEWORK?

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Anonymous Coward

@How many other children were spied on?

Only a small minority were spied upon, the cute sexy ones! Come in to my study Sarah, you've been a very naughy girl!

Seriously, the next thing is the police will be involved, this is way beyond Stephen Conroy stuff. BTW, someone get a condemnation from Australian minister Stephen Conroy (he of monitor the internet of every Australian fame), if he refuses to condemn it that will show parents the nature of the man. If he does condemn it, it will show them his hypocritical nature.

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Go

obvious solution

Reformat the laptop with an open-source OS, then you are in control of it instead of the spies.

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Too much effort

Reformatting is too much work, and won't get you past the Acceptable Use Policy you signed when you received your school-owned kit. It's particularly noticeable when you return the kit to the school at the end of the year.

No, the simplest answer is: Live CD ... pick a flavor (Windoze, 'Nix, whatever) ... no logs, no traces ... no violation of the agreement ... and no nasty little bugs running in the background.

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Anonymous Coward

very, very sly answer from BECTA

They're actually talking about the computers at home initiative

It's a government run scheme, whereby students within certain financial criteria qualify for a laptop. AKA underpriviliged.

When I was sysadmin at a school, we opted out of this initially, as we didn't want the extra administrative ball-ache we assumed would come with, and I suspect quite a few other schools did the same, because they quickly modified it so that the school itself would have no responsability over the laptops handed out.

All we had to do was identify the students that qualified under the criteria. (confidentially and discretely, of course. We didn't want to mark them out as the "poor kids").

The scheme then provided the pre-configured laptops, a 3G wifi connection, and even a tech support number for the student/family to call in case they had problems, so we as a school bore no support costs.

This was enough to sweeten the deal for us, and we opted in. Although we were never forced to support these items, I did on rare occasions deal with them, and can say with absolute confidence that those laptops were indeed provided without any form of Big Brother spyware on them.

But there's nothing stopping a school in the UK from providing their own IT equipment to students to to take home, which is what we also did. We provided all the 6th form students with Samsung Q1 tablet PCs, which they were able to take home.

Again, we didn't put anything particulary sinister on those machines as they were more a symbol of trust and responsibility (which suprisingly worked out rather well, even if the samsungs performance didn't)

But compare and contrast, if you will, what we put on our student desktops:

http://imperosoftware.com/impero.asp

http://www.netop.com/products/education/netop-onsight/features.htm#pdNav

These are the 2 most commonly used products in UK schools (I think, the latter appears to have changed its name) and as you can see from the feature lists, they are pretty intrusive.

Before any parent starts objecting, I'll first point out that your "little angel" is inevitably and systematically trying to access a whole slew of of innapropriate material, trying to break into their friends or teachers resources, or simply no getting on with their work cause they're playing flash games.

This software is absolutely catagorically required within the classroom. Without it the teacher loses all control. Because of that nearly all schools have this type of software in one form or another.

So what we have is schools by default owning monitoring software, and the ability to issue their own IT equipment. I can personally say I wouldn't have dreamed of putting camera monitoring software on students take-home machines, and common sense would dictate that no school would want to put itself in such a vulnerable position.

There was one occasion I gave a teacher an ex-student machine, and forgot to rename it. Because of its name, the next Impero update snared his computer, and to my horror, the students in one classroom were breifly shown a thumbnail of his desktop while he was working on some confidentail documents.

The text wasn't readable, and the client very quickly removed, but mistakes can happen.

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Silver badge

Management speak

"The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."

How do they know?

What access controls did they have in place? Who knew the access codes, and how were those secured?

How often was this facility used and for what purpose? What is shown in their detailed usage logs of this?

They did of course keep such logs? After all, nobody with the slightest sense would set up such an intrusive system without proper controls, would they?

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Big Brother

Score one more for "The Man"

While I sympathize with the school district's plight (I am sure that there would be all kinds of fuss if students were using their school-provided laptops to surf for porn or "sexting" their significant others), this is just creepy.

So some kid was probably pleasuring himself (maybe in conjunction with surfing for porn on this school laptop) and the school district thought that taking pictures of this would be OK? Great thinking brainiacs, maybe you should go back to school yourselves!!

For future reference, remind me to tape a piece of foam rubber over the camera and destroy the built in mic in any free laptops me and my loved ones might receive in the future. I'll be happy to remove the foam rubber and plug in a peripheral mic if we actually need that functionality for any WebEx's or other activities that require that kind of I/O.

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Built-in Mics

You don't need to destroy it. A U.S. dime-nickel's thickness of poster putty over the microphone perforations will suffice to make conversation unintelligible.

You can also disable the microphone in your audio settings, for instance. You can probably even disable it or the part of the driver that uses it in Device Manager if you're using some version of Windows.

I know in the *Nix OSes, you can certainly disable it. Macs will be a tad more difficult I believe. Apple doesn't like users mucking about with hardware settings.

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Silver badge
WTF?

Hang on, WTF?

All this talk of destroying built-in mics and/or taping stuff over the mic holes...

Can't you just buy some dirt cheap headphones, rip off the headphones leaving only the jack plug, and put that into the mic socket? On *every* laptop I've ever owned, doing that switches out the internal microphone. It'd be pretty easy to test, too.

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Anonymous Coward

Um

Lots of people pointing out that the feature was mis-used...

"This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop."

"However, what startled and then outraged Blake’s parents was the evidence provided: a photo of their son engaged in the "improper behaviour" cited, taken not on any friend’s camera – but by the webcam on the free school laptop."

That improper behaviour... using a stolen laptop perhaps?

Yes it's creepy, but as with most OMG news stories, nowhere near enough information.

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Grenade

Quick fix

Nothing at a piece of black electrical tape can't take care of....

I hope the school gets the sh*t sued out of them. There is no excuse for this sort of behavior.

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