School Surveillance Brings Suit

ComputerWorld reports that a Federal judge orders Pa. schools to stop laptop spying

Last week, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., on behalf of their son Blake, sued Lower Merion, accusing it of spying on students and students’ families using the iSight webcams in the MacBook laptops issued to each high school student in the district.

According to the original complaint, Blake Robbins was accused by a Harriton High School assistant principal of “improper behavior in his home” and shown a photograph taken by his laptop as evidence. In an appearance on network television last Saturday, Robbins said he was accused by the assistant principal of selling drugs and taking pills, but he claimed the pictures taken by his computer’s camera showed him eating candy.

I am genuinely surprised an American school official would think there is any justification in this kind of home spying. Are they familiar with the Constitution? This seems to be an example of a government official using technology to enter a child’s bedroom without invitation/warrant, as mentioned by the ACLU legal director in the article. Then again there might be a clue to this mentality in the story regarding Apple’s purge of “objectionable” applications from their store.

“I’m now worried the eco-system is run by puritans and is not fair to all players,” developer Jon Atherton said on its website.

Issues have come up before with regard to webcams, usually related to office environments and instant messenger software. The simple and obvious solution in those situations from a product perspective was for a manufacturer to include a manual shutter, similar to a lens cap. A user can slide the cover down to ensure a webcam view is disabled. The after-market alternative is a piece of paper taped over the lens, or something fancier, but you get the idea. The more complicated answer is to educate the educators on constitutional rights and freedom from unlawful surveillance that are still in effect no matter what the technology.

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