Penn. School Laptop Spycams Took 56,000 Pictures

| by Cato Institute

By Julian Sanchez

Last week, I wrote that we’d learned that the Lower Merion School District may have gathered many more photos of more students than had previously been revealed. Now, the Philadelphia Inquirer has put a number on it: A security program installed on laptops assigned to students captured 56,000 images over the course of two years, including screenshots (showing programs in use and private messages being sent) and surreptitious webcam photos of students at home.

Many of these images, it should be noted at the outset, do appear to have come from laptops that really had been stolen. Almost two-thirds of the total came from six laptops that had been stolen from a high school gym, and which kept transmitting for almost six months, though even there it’s a close question whether a warrant should have been obtained. (Why it took six months to recover the laptops with an active security program running is a good question for another time.) But many of those pictures seem much harder to justify:

[I]n at least five instances, school employees let the Web cams keep clicking for days or weeks after students found their missing laptops, according to the review. Those computers – programmed to snap a photo and capture a screen shot every 15 minutes when the machine was on – fired nearly 13,000 images back to the school district servers.

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Emphasis added. The district also says it only once activated the tracking program because a student had not paid the $55 insurance fee required before taking a laptop home. Blake Robbins, the student whose lawsuit brought the story to national attention, says that one case was his.  That raises obvious questions about whether school officials might have exercised their discretion to activate the tracking program more readily in the case of particular students. The activation procedure itself hardly imbues one with great confidence: Apparently 10 school officials had the authority to request laptop tracking, which they might do with a simple informal e-mail.

Just turn this over in your head for a moment. You’ve got ten different administrators—and in practice, the network techs themselves—able to turn a child’s home laptop into a remote surveillance camera just by sending an e-mail reporting that a laptop is missing, or that a fee didn’t get paid on time. The laptop can take thousands of photos over the course of days or weeks, with neither parents nor students any the wiser until a scandal forces closer scrutiny. If Robbins hadn’t been confronted, or if administrators had made a point of deleting these pictures of children at home rather than keeping them lying around in storage indefinitely, there’s no reason to think anyone would ever have known. How many tens of thousands of parents have kids in one-to-one school laptop programs now? What don’t they know?