Did a School Use Webcams to Spy on Students at Home?

Don't look now, but your laptop may be watching you.

School Webcam Spying
In what's shaping up to be a Springer-worthy scandal, a Pennsylvania school district is accused of using a school-issued laptop to spy on a student in his home. A lawsuit filed by the student's family claims the school remotely activated the computer's Webcam and observed the boy without his knowledge.

Right now, the case presents more questions than answers. One thing, though, is perfectly clear: Someone here isn't telling the full truth.

School Spying Questions

The school in question -- Harriton High School, near Philly -- provides laptops to all of its students as part of an initiative started last fall. According to a memo posted on the district's Web site, the laptops are offered in order to let students "work on projects and research both at school and at home" with "24/7 access to the software that they use in school."

The laptops also, however, have Webcams -- and, as information released in light of this week's lawsuit confirms, those Webcams can be remotely activated by school staff.

A letter from the district superintendent posted online Thursday states the following:

"District laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. The security feature, which was disabled today, was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student.

"Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature would be activated by the District's security and technology departments. The security feature's capabilities were limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator's screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."

The Student's Story

Laptop Webcam Spying
Compare that explanation with the student's story: An assistant principal, the lawsuit alleges, approached the boy at school and told him he'd been caught engaging in some kind of "improper behavior" in his home. The suit claims the administrator went on to say that the laptop's Webcam had captured an image of the activity in action.

Specifically what kind of activity that was hasn't been disclosed (though there's no shortage of Girls-Gone-Wild-style theories floating around out there). Regardless, the boy's parents say they never knew his computer's Webcam could be accessed remotely and used in such a seemingly invasive manner. And their lawsuit, according to The Telegraph, goes as far as to suggest the images captured by the school could "consist of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions," including "various stages of undress."

Privacy Problems

School Webcam Lawsuit
It's worth noting that families did apparently have to sign an agreement prior to receiving a laptop from the school. A district spokesperson tells CNN that agreement explained the school's ability to remotely "monitor hardware" but did not go into any detail about the Webcam or how it might play into that process.

And here you thought Google's privacy practices were problematic.

Something in this case obviously doesn't add up. Either someone's presenting misleading information -- intentionally or not -- or we're stuck in a game of semantics as to what exactly went down. Legal proceedings aside, the FBI is now said to be conducting a full criminal investigation to figure out what really happened. If the boy's side of the story proves to be true, there's a good chance federal privacy laws could have been violated.

Regardless of the end result, I have a sneaking suspicion a whole lot of Harriton High students are going to be carefully cloaking their laptops before getting in bed this evening.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the co-founder of eSarcasm. He's on Facebook: facebook.com/The.JR.Raphael

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