High school issues laptops, uses them to spy on students.

18 February 2010

An article hit Boing Boing today that raised the hackles on the back of my neck as I read it. The Lower Merion School District just outside of Philadelphia received a grant a couple of years back for laptop computers to issue to its students to use as part of their coursework. In November of last year, the parents of student Blake Robbins received a disciplinary notice pertaining to something unspecified (referred to as "improper behavior") in the affidavit. The disciplinary notice was accompanied by a photograph of Blake while he was at home. The laptops issued by Lower Merion are all equipped with built-in webcams mounted just above the displays, which isn't uncommon for portable computers these days. As it turns out, the issued laptops contain software that phones home to the school district and makes it possible for any teacher to remotely turn on the webcam and record anything that happens to be going on in front of the computer. Neither parents nor students were informed of this capability; no one knows how often it was or is made use of at this time.

Blake's parents have filed a class action complaint against the school district, the district's board of directors, and the district's superintendent, claiming that a whole laundry list of federal and Pennsylvania state laws have been violated. Among them are the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (amended in 1994, 1996, and 2001), and the Fourth Amendment (whether or not the Blake family will be suspected of terrorism remains to be seen). Nobody knows how often students were spied upon in this way, exactly who was watching, or what was seen. Evidence will be trivial to get: Blake's laptop undergoes forensic analysis, the malware is detected (I doubt anything as sophisticated as a rootkit was used to conceal it), and the configuration of the malware is analyzed to determine where it reports to.