back to article Feds open school spycam probe

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is opening a probe into allegations that a US high school used laptop cameras to monitor students. The investigation is the result of a class action suit filed last week against Lower Merion School District. School student Blake Robbins was told last November he had been accused of " …


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  1. Random Noise
    Big Brother


    "only happened on 42 occasions when the machines were reported lost or stolen"

    So in the case in question was the laptop reported lost or stolen? Why was the image taken of the kid?

    Given the hints El Reg was dropping last week as to what the 'inappropriate behavior' was does it not seem more like perhaps a keyword has triggered some kind of alarm which has caused them to take the image.

    Perhaps even more scarily they're just flat out lying and the camera are randomly monitored after all.

    Seems like they need to be justifying why the snap was taken of the kid in the first place. Maybe it shows him doing something untoward, but the fact is *something* had to give them just cause to take it in the first place.

  2. Wize

    Have they explained how...

    ...they have proof of him doing something inappropriate in his own bedroom when they have only monitored stolen PCs?

    1. Dr Patrick J R Harkin

      @Wize Have they explained how...

      Perhaps that's the point. Maybe he reported the laptop stolen, they turned on the camera and saw him in his own room.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    Remove access to laptops reported stolen

    Is illegal in the US. There used to be quite a few "laptop tracking" software packages used for asset management and tracking stolen laptops in the market. When the DMCA and similar legislation in other countries was passed, this type of software ran afoul of these laws. I know, I worked for one of the original laptop tracking firms created in the mid-90's and the company exited this market on the advice of council almost 10 years later. These programs basically exploit the 1982 DoD specification that defined TCP/IP to have the IP address inherently contain computer location information. The main problem was that the person who has the "stolen laptop" may not know it was stolen, in which case tracking its whereabouts enters a very gray area of the law, and remote accessing it to read or delete files unambiguously violates computer crime and wiretapping statutes. As I said, all of the reputable companies exited this business almost 10 years ago due to worries about the legality. You can still purchase this type of software, but the companies selling it are basically counting on no one going after them, not on being on the right side of the law.

    1. Peter Galbavy

      TCP/IP mtyhs #329

      "These programs basically exploit the 1982 DoD specification that defined TCP/IP to have the IP address inherently contain computer location information."

      Erm, well that statement pretty much renders the rest of your troll pointless. Any of us who know our TCP/IP "for real" know how much crap you speak.

      On the subject of webcams spying on users; Someone was stupid enough to get caught doing it. They will be in trouble from their employers and the practice will continue.

  4. Winkypop Silver badge

    See me after school


  5. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
    Big Brother

    To be expected

    Just another case of something said to have legitimacy for one purpose being used with no legitimacy for another.

    Is it any surprise we have a spying and abuse of rights culture when the airwaves are full of "caught on camera" programmes ? When we are near continuously spied on by our own government and others ? They lead, we follow.

    What's perhaps most worrying is that some 2,000 laptops were equipped with this ability to spy and it was only revealed because the idiots doing the spying let the cat out the bag in a most spectacular and inappropriate manner.

    How many are really sure of what's running on their laptop, are really sure their bosses cannot peek into their bedrooms ?

  6. Ivan Headache

    Developing facts?

    That's a whole new science.

  7. James O'Brien

    Well then. . .

    The school is screwed. Lord knows what the picture was of but I highly doubt it was because the laptop was reported stolen. Now they get to explain themselves to some rather happy go lucky FBI agents.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    There seems to be very much

    a consensus that the "inappropriate behaviour" this poor kid was caught doing was having a bit of a ham shank.

    I disagree. I think he was rolling a joint or something.

    There's no way someone would produce a photo of a kid "Chucking his Norris" in his own bedroom and claim it was inappropriate behaviour. Only to then to show the pic to the parents.

    I mean come on, talk about needing a reality check.

    Also, whether or not I agree with the general consensus, I am bitterly disappointed with lack of appropriate euphemisms relating to 'Abusing the wicked stick'.

    You could all do better if I'm being frank.

    Good day!

    1. Lionel Baden


      Being viewing Pictures or ladies with small breasts !!!!


      viewing animal pornography


      extreme porn ...

      The list is endless ...

      Oh wait thats here nm

      must of been sexting then :)

    2. Professor Tinklepants
      Thumb Up

      "Chucking his Norris"

      I nearly spat yoghurt over my keyboard when I read that!!

      And no, that's not a euphemism - I really was eating yoghurt.


  9. A B 3
    Thumb Down

    Bad Monkey

    So he was obviously a teenager looking at the keyword pictures... Lasagna? If that's what happened it is very offensive and the school should be punished severely. I have no idea why they would not compare this to breaking into a home a taking snaps.

  10. Terry H


    I've been following this with above average level of interest. The kid and his family were actually on TV. The "inappropriate behavior" was "selling / using pills". The kid counters he was eating candy.

    Oddly it is still unclear if anyone has seen the picture or if the vice-principle only reported seeing it. Also unknown how the "selling" part of the story came to pass; no one has inferred another person was in the picture. Most likely inference here seems not a "picture" at all but a video complete with audio. Also if we follow that line of reasoning it is quite possible the kid did what he is accused of doing. But right now the school has both the state and feds lined up with about 10 first degree felony charges. I am certain both state and feds very passionately want this matter to go away as it's never good to prosecute one of your own. But as there is no honor among thieves you can bet they will hang the whole school board out to dry if the media won't let this rest.

    Overall the "defense" of "the camera's are only used to find lost / stolen laptops" seems a direct contradiction and complete non-starter with the part where the parents were notified by the vice principle of the violation. Perhaps noteworthy, on other boards I read numerous people claiming to have seen a TV show where a school bragged of their ability to spy on students with the web cams.

    So it may be possible, albeit at the very edge of credibility that the suit was made up based on the TV show and the vice-principle never contacted the parents at all. This is probably stretched past the breaking point by the fact the vice-principle in question seems to have crawled in a hole and then pulled said hole in after himself.

    It is probably a good time to <editorialize> All US vice-principles are power mad and more than mildly evil. So if anyone had spare time on his hands and a penchant for nefarious activity there is little need to look to a less upstanding member of society than a vice-principle </editorialize>

    Personally, not that you asked, but I believe the story went down exactly as reported and the school, in the person of this and likely other vice-principles, made a routine habit of watching web cams looking for just this sort of activity. [I will leave out peado references, feel free to add your own.] The problem is that they never fully considered what they would do once they hit this "pay dirt".

    As the old saying goes, now they got the tiger by the tail. This promises to be very very interesting.

    1. davenewman

      Principle of vice

      What is the principle of vice you are worried about? The mind boggles.

      Surely you don't mean a vice-principal?

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Pedant alert

      vice-principAL, I think you mean. PrincipAL is an adjective describing the office-holder's status. PrincipLE is a noun referring to things the office holder may have heard of but clearly doesn't possess. </pedant>

      Oh wait, I see you are an American, and therefore a product of the same educational system. Can't expect you to know that, then. Sorry.

      1. Andus McCoatover

        @ AC, above.

        OK, Terry H. might not have English/American as native language. Good post, though - I recc'd it.

        Language, my pedant friend isn't always about perfect grammar, but communication. Consider the following phrase.

        "I'll try and find my keys." Really should be "I'll try TO find my keys", as trying and doing are mutually exclusive. Most of us say the former, the latter is correct. You know what I mean (groan!!)

        I bugger up big time in Finnish. Try this:

        "hän tapaa sinua, sitten hän tappaa sinua". "he will meet with you, then he will kill you".

        What a difference a letter makes...Doesn't really matter, we get the drift. (affect/effect excepted, natch)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Up

          RE: @AC, above

          Well said, I'm sick of all the witless pedants on this site. They want to be heard but they have nothing to say.

    3. Andus McCoatover

      Finding a lappie.

      <Days after a student filed suit over the practice, Lower Merion officials acknowledged Friday that they remotely activated webcams 42 times in the past 14 months, but only to find missing student laptops>

      OK, they found it. In his bedroom. I think the school might try the "He accidentally picked up the wrong lappie" defence, but that's too obvious even for a TV program's "Laugh/Applause" light.

      Terry H - I don't s'pose you have a link to the program, if it was streamed, do you?

      Like Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap', I reckon this'll "run and run".

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    When they say school

    I wonder what they mean?

    If we are talk under 18s hear the whole of the school authority could end up on a paedo faster than you can say "oops"

    1. Terry H

      When they say school...

      In this case it means US High School: Grades 9-12. Nominally ages 14-18. The kid in question is a 16 yo male.

      One of the interviews was with a mortified 15 (I believe it was) yo girl who takes her laptop to the bath to listen to music. MANY (MOST) keep them on near 100% of the time. The conclusions about dressing and most everything else one does in the privacy of his own room have already been WIDELY discussed with much disgust.

      The school will likely avoid peado charges as there is no proof, as yet at least. The federal and state hacking, and wire tap charges are going to prove much more sticky.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I rather like the idea of "vice-principles", but surely that would be far too naughty for a school?

    One of our old bosses put in a job advert to recruit a "principle secretary", which we thought was highly appropriate because he didn't have any principles of his own.

  13. SPiT

    A pity they didn't try it in the UK

    Over here random camera monitoring would no doubt result in the staff involved all going to prison and being put on the sex offendors list (and hence banned from ever working in schools). Apparently applies even if they only accidently take pictures of naked school children.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Big Brother

      RE: A pity they didn't try it in the UK

      But only because the police would be mad they didn't think of it first, right?

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Does it matter

    What he was doing, this kid was in his own bedroom when someone with access took pictures without consent or knowledge.

    This has got to constitute a violation of many laws.

  15. transientcylon
    Thumb Up

    Chalk one up for the crazies... me who disable the embedded webcam and fingerprint scanner when they are issued their new work laptop.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Slammer time

    I am tired of the attitude displayed by some (many?) school administrators and even teachers that since they are in the noble profession of molding the minds of the next generation that somehow they are above the law.

    The Bill of Rights seems to be something they teach, not something they follow.

    Somebody needs to spend time in prision for this.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    Perhaps the laptop was reported stolen....

    There is a chance that our poor "victim" reported the laptop stolen in an attempt to get another one, giving him school laptop and an off-the-books laptop.

    This would explain why the school maintains that they only ever try remote connections to stolen laptops.

    The school should have explained this security feature, but at least they can legitimately say they weren't spying on the lad.

    1. Pablo


      But if that were true:

      1. You would think the school would be very quick to point this out.

      2. They still showed terrible judgment by acting on any information gleaned in their snooping that didn't directly relate to finding the laptop.

  18. Pat Volk
    Big Brother

    The reason as I read

    Was he skipped school that day (at least that's what was claimed in the lawsuit). Bueller? Bueller? (although that guy got busted for being a paedo).

    Props to El Reg for not going British on the geography on this one (Lower Merion is in the vicinity of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

  19. StheD

    The real scoop

    It appears that this kid's sin was eating Ike and Mike candy, misidentified by some clueless administrator as pills. The parents say that the laptop was not reported stolen. So, the school district would have us believe that the one and only time they look at a webcam without cause they find a kid doing something nefarious. Pull the other one, it has bells on.

    The school also has claimed that only two people were allowed to look at the webcam - I'm fairly sure neither was the assistant principal, a she, by the way.

    My sources tell me that the parents in this district are more than slightly annoyed by this. The quoted reaction of the school sounds just like a lawyer saying that the case of his client, found with a hand in the cookie jar, would be strongly litigated.

  20. Joe User
    Big Brother

    "21st Century Learning Initiative"

    Hopefully the kids have learned to take the initiative to secure their laptops from prying eyes.

    Welcome to the 21st century.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Re: Peter Galbavy

    Big FAIL for you. Please let us know what IT firm you work for, so we can blacklist it. Maybe you should take an English lesson as well. Location is always in relation to other points in the topological space one is working within. IP addresses are inherently hierarchical. That is how they work. Hierarchical network topology is how stolen laptops, sloppy hackers, etc are found. No one said you can put an IP address on a letter and the post office will know where on the planet to deliver it. But that also does not mean that someone who does know what they are doing can't physically locate you based on your IP address (often coupled with ancillary info from the network or ISP).

  22. Mimi Rothschild, Educational Technologist

    School Spies Should be Held Criminally Liable

    If preliminary reports are accurate, the Lower Merion School District employees who were involved in the use of web cams to "monitor" student laptops appear to be guilty of numerous felonies, The civil action filed in federal court in Pennsylvania alleges that the Superintendent and Board members are guilty of "invasion of Plaintiff's violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act of 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, ,the Fourth Amendment, and the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act...."

    If actions such as these were conducted by any other individual, they would be held criminally liable, not simply civilly as the class action lawsuit stands to date. I trust that the District Attorney of Montgomery County and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will thoroughly and unbiasly investigate the allegations and not capitulate to the powerful school board associations both locally and nationally that will surely seek to absolve their members of any responsibility.

    If this case remains solely within the civil courts, the only punitive consequences to pay for Lower Merion School District's malfeasance is monetary. And who pays the money to the victims? The taxpayers.... who are the victims themselves. And the student's themselves pay since the funding allocated for educational programs could be diverted to compensate the victims. This is clearly not an unacceptable outcome to such an egregious list of alleged crimes.

    My daughter who is friends with a Lower Merion student sang songs while at a sleepover party in front of the Lower Merion School District issued laptop. Unbeknownst to this group of 12 year old girls, while clad in their pajamas, they could have been watched by the very people entrusted to their education,

    Real justice and the best deterrent to such frightening abuse of power by school administrators happens if the wrongdoers are held personally accountable the way anyone else would be.

    Mimi Rothschild


    Lower Merion resident and Educational Technologist

  23. Iain Thomas


    One alternate possibility that perhaps this kid took the pic themselves, sent it to their schoolmates, and a couple forwards later, the school ended up with a copy.

    Then someone claimed "automated monitoring" as everyone by now should know about how embarrassing pictures/videos tend to get forwarded around...

    Just a thought... Maybe taking dodgy pics of himself, and e-mailing to his classmates is the "inappropriate behaviour" they're talking about!

  24. Asgard
    Big Brother

    This case is getting very interesting.

    On the one hand, if the state does nothing and lets the school off, the very large public profile of this case is very likely to generate considerable high profile public outrage at the state, for failing to act. If that happens, the case will act as a high profile milestone to help fuel future protests against future abuses of privacy.

    Yet on the other hand, the state has to punish the school. So if they do punish the school, that will also create a high profile milestone to use in future protests against yet more state abuses of privacy. :)

    Also, the most likely chess move the state can play is to find a fall guy, like the high school administrator (to attempt to reduce the profile of the case by focusing all blame on one person). In which case they will be able to put him away for years on wiretapping charges. But if they do that, it will still create a high profile milestone showing how even petty control freaks these days can now abuse technology so far if they are allowed to do what they like. So we still get a high profile milestone case. :)

    Looks like the state is damned if they do and damned if they don't. So whichever chess move they play, they harm their own future efforts to keep on undermining peoples privacy.

    Its about time privacy advocates had a strong weapon to use against the "have got nothing to hide morons" who are the unwitting sheepish front line pawns for the control freaks, who want us all to just accept ever more pervasive surveillance (for their own gain as usual). This case certainly needs to be exploited like it really is a high profile milestone, (and to make it ever more high profile by highlighting the case at every opportunity and by exploiting the power of the Internet to spread news and views about this unfolding case). It needs to be made very high profile so no one is in any doubt now just how far even current technology can be abused, if its setup to allow such abuses of power.

    Looks like the control freaks chess moves to retrain us all into accepting ever more pervasive surveillance has just hit a major high profile bump in the road so to speak. :)

    With so many examples these days of ever more surveillance and undermining of privacy, I suppose it was only a matter of time before some high profile case came along to highlight just how bad it can get, when even some petty control freak is allowed to have the power to abuse technology for their own gain. Its about time. :)

    Pass the popcorn, I can't wait to see how this plays out. :)

  25. shawnfromnh

    Illegal wiretap

    Seems the same as the government and AT&T spying without a warrant. Basically if the laptop was not reported stolen/lost by the parents or the student to the school then they were not using the cams to catch thieves but to spy on students. Just because it's a school computer doesn't mean they have ANY right to spy on the students when they are on their own time or off school property.

    This seems to be a real problem lately in the US. The schools act like they own the kids or like they are the police. In reality they are just training young people for adulthood and as an adult I can say if my boss was using my cam to spy on me I basically own his business once my lawyer got through with him.

    I think it's time someone like the people in this school that allowed/did this should go to jail or lose their job at a minimum to set an example.

    About time someone put these snoopy power hungry pricks in their place which is they train kids, period. They have to be shown they are not law enforcement, private detectives, DEA agents or anything else. They teach, kids go home, they mind their own business till the next school day, repeat.

    Sorry about the rant but if this happened 20 or 30 years ago and it was me my father would kick that vice principles front door down and kick the crap out of him. Maybe it's time for more of that kind of stuff to give these kind of people something to think about before walking over someones civil rights. Maybe suing the school for 10 million dollars and insisting that the vice principle and anyone else involved is fired and lose all tenure and have a huge note put in their personal work record so they would have a very hard time getting a new job would be nice also.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    US Civics 101

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

    That, ladies and gentlemen, is the 4th amendment to the US Constitution, which binds all public servants in the Land of the Free.

    This was a search.

    Where is the warrant?

    Where is the probably cause for the Warrant?

    In my mind, this is the same as entering the student's home to look around for the PC. Nobody would every think that was OK without a court-issued warrant, why on earth do these numbskulls think it's OK to use electronic surveillance (without a court order)?

    For their sake I hope there's more to this story.

    For the sake of students and parents in the US, if there ISN'T more to this story I hope those involved in this decision are made an example of; to send a message to the rest of the education community.

  27. Herby Silver badge

    Is there a PFY episode here?

    There is something here, I mean why wouldn't the boss have one of these that was accidentally declared "missing" for the purposes of this investigation. The mind boggles!

  28. heystoopid
    Big Brother

    Sherlock is on the Job

    “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

  29. Tim Roberts 1

    OK I'll bite

    As a parent of "post teenagers" and a teacher of teenagers, I can say that I am appalled that such a facility can be turned on seemingly without cause. I see the facts as these:

    1- the laptops will be mostly in the bedrooms of the students

    2- at some time in the day, they will be in various stages of undress, either alone or with others

    3- some will engage in"other" activities such as rolling and smoking a joint.

    Throw the book at the person who either allowed the cams to be activated or condoned same. If they are looking in teens bedrooms with a laptop cam, they might as well be perving at the window.

  30. Displacement Activity

    How does this work?

    Almost all the kids who get these laptops will have dynamic IP addresses. Even if they had fixed IP addresses, the school wouldn't know what they were, and the address wouldn't identify the laptop anyway. Besides, the school couldn't reach a given laptop without setting up a route on the kid's home network. Or do the laptops all connect to their own ISP using a 3G connection, and a fixed IP address? That doesn't seem very likely.

    So, presumably there's some piece of malware on the laptop that occasionally calls home, asking for instructions.

    Hang on. Isn't that what Microsoft does? I've got a nasty feeling that this school does what MS does: somewhere in the small print, these poor suckers have agreed to be spied on.

    1. Andus McCoatover

      Forgive me, I'm old and befuddled, but..

      ..wouldn't MAC address do it? OK, I know it can easily be spoofed in Linux (I did it once to get a free 'ride*' on someone's machine in an Irving, Texas hotel network - thanks, Wireshark) but most (I hesitate) "average" Windows users wouldn't be aware how to.

      *no Cowgirls - forward, reversed, or even first cousins twice removed - were hurt in the creation of this post. Or even bothered. Dammit.

      1. NukEvil

        No to MAC address

        Nope, MACs can't be used in this situation because once a packet traverses a router, whatever MAC address that packet contains is stripped and replaced with the MAC address of that router interface. So once a packet reaches its destination, the MAC address contained will most likely be an interface on the closest router.

        The reason why you got a "free ride" on a network is because both you and the machine you were spoofing were behind the same router, and that machine had valid credentials. I used to do it all the time on the wireless network of the university I graduated from.

        I'm thinking it's similar to what LoJack (CompuTrace) does. Once a laptop is turned on, the software inside automatically contacts a known server (assuming a working internet connection), and gives that server its network information (external IP, etc). Then, it's just a matter of choosing which IP address to "spy" on. Or something.

  31. Graham Bartlett

    @Displacement Activity

    I don't know how it works in the States, but here in the UK a contract is void if it requires the contractee to sign over rights that can't legally be signed over, or to carry out actions which are illegal. A contract that allows filming of underage kids in their bedrooms would seem to fit that bill.

  32. Displacement Activity


    I suspect that, even here in the UK, a child can use a webcam in their bedroom without being interfered with by Ms. Harman (unless, presumably, the activity being filmed is of itself illegal). If a child can consent to share webcam pictures in the normal way, then it seems only a small step to consent to share them with their school, via small print in a contract. If it came to court in this country, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the pondscum arguing it on issues of small-print enforceability, rather than privacy.

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