School District Says It Only Turned Spy Cameras On 42 Times; FBI Now Investigating

from the you're-on-school-district-candid-camera dept

More details are coming out about the case we wrote about yesterday concerning the school district that could (and did) turn on webcams on student laptops. The district is now claiming that, yes, it had the ability to do so, and in fact did so 42 times (though, it never told students or parents it could do this). However, the district claims that it only did so to try to track down lost or stolen laptops. That doesn’t explain how this resulted in a student being reprimanded for “improper behavior in his home” though.

Either way, it looks like this is going beyond a civil case of the families suing the school district. The FBI is now investigating the case as well, to see if the district violated either wiretapping or computer-intrusion laws. Now, it’s not unheard of to have capabilities like this turned on to find lost or stolen laptops — so perhaps that is understandable. But the fact that this kid was reprimanded for stuff he did in the privacy of his home while caught on camera definitely seems questionable. No one seems willing to say if this particular laptop was ever reported “lost or stolen,” so perhaps the district’s argument is that the student had taken the laptop. But if that’s the case, you would think they would have come out and said so, rather than the vaguely worded denials put forth already.

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Comments on “School District Says It Only Turned Spy Cameras On 42 Times; FBI Now Investigating”

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Overcast (profile) says:

Re: School perverts only looked at kid undressing 42 times

there fixed it for you
sick fucks ought to get serious prison time if ANY nudity was involved

They should anyway, either way. They could have just used torrent to download their kiddie porn, but I guess that’s not good enough for them, obviously.

Maybe they were worried about ‘copyright’ issues on torrent, heh.

But seriously – people need to flood them with FOIA requests for the videos.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

At this point, it’s not a matter of if they got nude images or not. Clearly, they have no control over what any minor is doing in front of the camera at the time they activate the laptop’s webcam. Since they can’t control it, they are at any moment capable of taking a photograph that may be considered child pornography.

Not only that, but what controls were in place to keep the webcams from being activated? What happens when those controls are cracked? Now the school has enabled the possible collection of inappropriate images and would be guilty of aiding in the creation of child pornograpy.

Finally, GPS anyone? Doesn’t that sound like a much simpler and more acceptable solution?

David T says:

Show no mercy

This is beyond the pale. Aside from wiretapping, hacking, civil suits, if there was any sexual indecency captured by the school, the principle and involved personnel should be brought up on charges for creating and transmitting child pornography.

Lite the people responsible on fire and scorch the earth around them for this outrage.

Cohen (profile) says:

We brought the telescreens into our own homes

For some reason the telescreen in the living-room was in an unusual position. Instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, it was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove in which Winston was now sitting, and which, when the flats were built, had probably been intended to hold bookshelves. By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was able to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went. He could be heard, of course, but so long as he stayed in his present position he could not be seen. It was partly the unusual geography of the room that had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.

BearGriz72 (profile) says:

Re: We brought the telescreens into our own homes

I have not read Nineteen Eighty-Four since High School. It is about time to delve once again into the Orwellian future/present to refresh my sense of indignation at “an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation…”. Oh Crap to late, our freedoms are already disappearing down the “Memory Hole

Hephaestus (profile) says:

What is wrong with the tachers in Philly ...

Are these teachers going out of their way to find Kiddy porn?

I mean first they find pictures of underage kids sexting. After doing a legally questionable search of someones cell phone. Now they are actively spying on kids in their bedrooms using web cams.

Personally I think its been used a lot more than 42 times. Since this software more than likely can be run from anywhere. I would check the ISP’s log files for the two techies at the school and any of the staff that may have had access to the software and any passwords required.

Spanky says:

Meine Ehre hei�t Treue

Although the superintendent said this is security software, which is activated when the laptop is reported lost or stolen, there is as yet no evidence of any such report in this case. The kid was hit up for “improper behavior”, not stealing a laptop. The district is, quite simply, trying to cover its ass, because they know they’re in deep legal kim chee.

I doubt that anything will come of this, since warrantless wiretapping is now legal, and The Constitution is now just that fuckin’ piece of paper on the wall.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 42?

So it had 42 laptops stolen? Seems like an unlikely large number for a school district.

Or missing. I think that’s going to be the school’s defense. They’ll just say that any time they don’t know exactly where the laptop is, then it’s obviously “missing” as far as they’re concerned and thus they have reason to turn the camera on. If it turns out that it’s with the kid in his/her bedroom, well now they’ve found it. The kid doesn’t have to actually “report” it missing first. Using that standard they could justify turning the cameras on just about anytime they wanted to.

Anonymous Coward says:

From the ACLU quote at the bottom of the washington times link, it seems that aforemetioned “improper behaviour” was masturbating, or some other sex based activity (I mean, it was pretty obvious from the start, but it’s there in text).

Ignoring everything else, why does the school have the power to discipline someone for masturbating at home? Or why did anyone at the school *think* they did?

PT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Everyone seems to assume it was masturbation, but I don’t think anyone, however blue nosed, would confront the kid or the parents with a picture of that. It’s much more likely the kid was seen with what appeared to be a hand-rolled cigarette, or something of that kind. That doesn’t make it right, of course, but would make it easier to understand why the school thought it necessary to mention it. They didn’t have to – they could have carried on spying on the kids for ever if they didn’t out themselves.

Chad says:

Lost or stolen laptop?

Putting aside the potentially improper reprimanding of the child, I’ve read articles about this on a few different sites today, and the school district really seems to be pushing the issue that they would only use that software to locate lost or stolen laptops….

Now if a child gets a laptop from the school and several months down the road claims that it was stolen, it sure would be nice if they had some way to verify the location of said laptop. Upon turning on the webcam, they note that the child has the laptop in his possession. Upon confronting the child about possessing the laptop, the child tells his parents that the school was spying on him who then go crazy to protect the child’s privacy (read: to protect the child from getting in trouble for stealing a laptop).

That’s how it sounds to me anyway… I’d be pretty upset with that child too if I learned that he was lying about having his laptop stolen in order to obtain a free laptop. Maybe I’d be upset enough to reprimand him for something entirely unrelated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Lost or stolen laptop?

Wouldn’t you just reprimand him for stealing the laptop? And wouldn’t they have come out and said “The kid said the laptop was stolen so we checked the webcam and it turns out he was lying”?

Your version of events only really makes sense if everyone involved is incredibly stupid, or the news outlets reporting the incident are lying/covering up information.

yer Gulla-Bull says:

Re: Lost or stolen laptop?

I guess you missed the part where the laptop users were told that the webcam light turning on/off was just a bug and not to worry about it.

So, you are saying that 42 kids report their school issued laptop as stolen and then they complain about the webcam turning on and off?

Somehow this does not make sense.

Anonymous Coward says:

here in OZ the laptops given to students have the same tracking system in them that is used to locate stolen cars. so you dont need to turn on the webcam, the laptop will give its gps co-ords and if that matches up with the kids house then you know it aint been nicked. Of course it means they can track where it is 24/7.

wizened (profile) says:

Something doesn't smell right to me

So, someone please explain to me how turning on a web cam help you locate a stolen laptop. I mean, unless you have a picture of every room in every house in Philly, all you really know is that the stolen laptop is “somewhere”. If the laptop has GPS then you don’t need the web cam. Am I missing something?

me says:

Re: Something doesn't smell right to me

I suspect that they are not using the webcam to see where the laptop is directly. They are using it to see who has the laptop. If it happens to be a student at the school or someone who is known to the viewers, then it should be easy to track down its location (or simply call that person into the principal’s office).

That said, GPS makes a lot more sense.

Free Computer? It could be more likely than you t says:

Re: Re: Something doesn't smell right to me

“If a picture of kid A is taken at a later date then he either found the PC or is a liar.”

That’s exactly why I call my insurance company when I can’t remember where I parked my car. They’ve replaced the car many times. In fact, I’m on my 42nd lost car.

Joe Perry (profile) says:

the role of schools

I don’t understand how the school thinks they have the right to punish someone for improper behavior at home anyway. Isn’t that sort of…outside of their jurisdiction? If it’s not being done at the school and they didn’t find out about it at school they shouldn’t be able to get you in trouble at the school. If my teacher heard me cursing at a local store would s/he be able to give me detention?

Here comes Judge Dread says:

Re: the role of schools

You are correct.

The real reason for this software being installed upon the school issued laptops is because the school administration suffers from megalomania. It has nothing to do with locating a stolen laptop as pointed out many times in this thread, that just does not make any sense.

The fact that school administrators think they have domain over all aspects of the students life has been in the news many times over the past decade and the rate at which this occurs is increasing.

Next thing you know, they will want wall mounted cams in your home. This has already been suggested in the state of Texas and is being done in the UK under certain circumstances.

Ladyjustice (profile) says:

Re: Re: the role of schools

I think you have nailed it. Parents had better wake up and realize that the school systems are slowly putting a choke hold on our children and our rights to decide what we feel is best for them. We no longer have much of a say as to what is taught and how it is presented. We need to look at the inteligence levels of children of the same age in other countries. We are being given a snow job and our children are becoming fat,lazy,and slow.

Anonymous Coward says:

Lojacking Laptops

If they say ARD is used to “find missing laptops” they should have considered a software package that does just that. They could have bought could have just got a site license of this:

I imagine the school would have spent less negotiating a site license for this software if the school wanted to be responsible for the hardware.

Ideally, the school would have sent a contractual paper home with the new computer, asking the parents to pony up a “$90 LoJack installation fee”, (I’ve included soft costs: $90 includes a $30 fee to cover the 10 minutes it requires the admin to stick a CD in the drive)

If a family disagrees to the LoJack, they could have required the family to personally guarantee replacement of the equipment if it’s lost or stolen.

It seems none of this was offered.

Because they didn’t offer alternative options, we can only assume the school wanted to lock it down and retain ownership of the hardware and anything created on it.

Additionally, it seems they didn’t require parents to indemnify the school for any use of said school-owned machine, nor was it disclosed that the webcam may be used for nefarious use. Therefore, it’s the school’s problem of any content created, including content created by School Administrators and/or IT staff.

Basically, the school administration locked the computers down without offering any options. In turn, the school owns any content created on the machines including that which may be nefarious in nature.

In the end, it seems these students would have been better off BUYING or even RENTING a computer from a reputable source such as or where students would have the ability to OWN and control software installed, and retain privacy rights.

What the school did is wrong. 42 infractions is 42 privacy violations, and 42 too many. 42 is what’s documented. What’s undocumented?

Famed Zealout Mike Movemento de la Bowel says:

Re: Lojacking Laptops

Yeah, schools should just turn over control to the parents rather than attempting to administer everything themselves. They come off looking bad.

At the end of a school year, they probably just re-image the computers anyway. If they don’t, they have a real crappy IT specialist.

Also, if the computer gets dropped or they have problems with it, are they allowed the ability to walk into an Apple store and get service? Probably not. They get to work with the IT Nazi who wants to claim that booting from a USB drive will stop the rotation of the world. The IT Nazi will also inform them that they’ve just bought a computer at retail price (omitting the fact they get volume and site license discounts) plus ten hours of the IT Nazi’s time.

It’s the IT Nazi’s service and selection Steve Jobs really wants, and what drives people to Windows early on in life.

The Baker says:

HIgh Tech Solution

1. Buy a roll of black electrical tape at your local home center.
2. Cut a length equal to the width of the tape.
3. Center the square over the lens of the webcam.
4. Press firmly to affix tape.
5. Now you can [quietly} engage in showering, dressing, pulling Gumby , joint smoking or whatever.
6. Tape can be easily removed when the webcam is needed and reapplied after.

As a bonus, you can use the left over tape to cover that pesky blinking VCR clock.

Step 7. Work to fire the school administrators and educate the students, parents and new school admin to our rights as citizens of the United States of America.

This whole thing was a train wreck just waiting to happen.
You don’t give IT geeks or school administrators unfettered access to anyone’s webcam let alone pubescent teens.

Adrian in Dallas (profile) says:


Since others here are busy with the quote from George Orwell’s “1984,” I am wondering why nobody’s mentioned that the school board’s claim that it only remotely turned-on those little lap-top cameras 42 times means that Douglas Adams was right. The answer to everything is 42.

And that school board will be paying out about 42 million dollars to settle this little matter, too.

See how that works?!

eizdaone (profile) says:


No matter the excuse, the privacy of the students was violated – mainly because the district did not inform the students parents of the ability to use the laptops to monitor the kids without prior warning. Sure, it (the monitoring) would have likely raised a stink anyway, but this is not china…we do not do this kind of stuff in America, and the Justice department should make sure that it is clear to all school districts that such action is illegal.

Anonymous Coward says:

It's time we regulate the OS manufacturers & require more disclosure

It’s weird that we live in a society where we even have to debate if software that allows this functionality is okay to produce and sell in the marketplace.

If they now require a 5 day waiting period to purchase a gun, shouldn’t they have a five hour waiting period or a warrant to take pictures of people in a residence?

PRMan (profile) says:


Dear LMSD Parents/Guardians,

Yesterday I reported to you on the early phases of the school district’s response to questions raised about the security-tracking software feature that was installed on student laptop computers. While we were able to address many of your initial questions and concerns, I regret we were not immediately in a position to answer all of your questions. Our goal is to be as open as possible, while preserving student privacy, and ensure that over time we have answered to your satisfaction every question about this situation and the broader issue of technology and privacy.

We are a school district that embraces the use of leading-edge technology in our instructional program, encourages all forms of free expression, and must do everything possible to safeguard individual privacy. For these and other reasons, this matter is of the highest importance. In this regard, we have retained the services of Henry E. Hockeimer, Jr., Esq., a local attorney and former federal prosecutor, to assist in our comprehensive review of relevant policies and past practices, as well as assist us in implementing appropriate improvements.

Despite some reports to the contrary, be assured that the security-tracking software has been completely disabled. As I noted yesterday, this feature was limited to taking a still image of the computer user and an image of the desktop in order to help locate the reported missing, lost, or stolen computer (this includes tracking down a loaner computer that, against regulations, might be taken off campus). While we understand the concerns, in every one of the fewer than 50 instances in which the tracking software was used this school year, its sole purpose was to try to track down and locate a student’s computer. Before answering additional questions below, it is important to clear up the matter of notice to students and parents of the existence of the security software. While certain rules for laptop use were spelled out – such as prohibitive uses on and off school property – there was no explicit notification that the laptop contained the security software. This notice should have been given and we regret that was not done.

Once again, we regret this situation has been a source of concern and disruption, and trust that we will soon have stronger privacy policies in place as a result of the lessons learned and our comprehensive review that is now underway. If you have any questions or concerns, please email us at Additional information has been posted on our website,

Thank you for your time and attention.


Dr. Christopher W. McGinley

Superintendent of Schools

Lower Merion School District


Questions & Answers

Updated February 19, 2010

1. Did an assistant principal at Harriton ever have the ability to remotely monitor a student at home? Did she utilize a photo taken by a school-issued laptop to discipline a student?

* No. At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security- tracking software. We believe that the administrator at Harriton has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family. The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action.

2. How were the decisions made to develop the original security plan? Were there/are there safeguards in place to ensure student privacy with regard to use of the security application?

* Concerned about the security of district-owned and issued laptops, the security plan was developed by the technology department to give the District the ability to recover lost, stolen or missing student laptops. This included tracking loaner laptops that may, against regulations, have been taken off campus.
* Only two members of the technology department could access the security feature.

3. Were students and families explicitly told about the laptop security system?

* No. There was no formal notice given to students or their families. The functionality and intended use of the security feature should have been communicated clearly to students and families.

4. How many thefts have there been? How many times was the system used? What have been the results in terms of recovery of computers?

* During the 2009-10 school year, 42 laptops were reported lost, stolen or missing and the tracking software was activated by the technology department in each instance. A total of 18 laptops were found or recovered. This number (18) is an updated number given the information we have compiled today.

5. What was the total cost of implementation of the laptop program?

* The approximate cost of each laptop is $1,000 and during the two years of the program, there were 2,620 laptops purchased.

6. How was funding obtained for the laptop program?

* Laptops were purchased using a combination of district funds and and Classrooms for the Future grants.

7. When was the district notified of the allegations contained in the lawsuit?

* The district learned of the allegations Thursday, February 18th. No complaints were received prior to this date. The district’s initial response was posted on the district webpage and communicated to students and parents the same day. The district will not be commenting on the specifics of the plaintiff’s complaint, however, outside the legal process.

8. In the future, will students be required to use district issued laptops?

* The district believes students received significant benefit from the one-to-one laptop program and has no intention of discontinuing the program.

9. Is remote access activity by the district logged?

* Yes. There is a log entry for every instance of the security feature activation. The logs will be reviewed as part of the special review conducted under the direction of special outside counsel.

10. Can parents return currently issued laptops to the district at this time?

* They can, but we note that the laptops are an integral component of the educational program in the district. The security feature has been deactivated and there is no reason to be concerned about the use of the laptop on campus or at home.

11. Did the district remotely access any laptops which were not lost, missing or stolen?

* No.

12. Are students allowed to cover the camera on their school issued laptops with tape?

* Yes. There is no requirement that a student use the camera’s standard webcam feature.

FAQs Posted February 18

1. Why are webcams installed on student laptops?

* The Apple computers that the District provides to students come equipped with webcams and students are free to utilize this feature for educational purposes.

2. Why was the remote tracking-security feature installed?

* Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. The security feature 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.

3. How did the security feature work?

* Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.

4. Do you anticipate reactivating the tracking-security feature?

* Not without express written notification to all students and families.

Trebek says:

Re: Response...

“We are a school district that embraces the use of leading-edge technology in our instructional program, encourages all forms of free expression, and must do everything possible to safeguard individual privacy.”

I’m afraid I find this rather laughable.

It is truly amazing that all who screw up royally these days always follow up with a very long, somewhat well written load of crap aimed at making them look like such pure angels of justice. Please, oh, please. Only the weak-minded fools and conformists will fall for such tosh.

When you’re caught, you’re caught. Don’t attempt to circumnavigate the consequences of action. This is the law of Karma. People will only hate such idiocy further.

Anonymous Coward says:

In a world of legitimite waterboarding, the storyboarder is king.

I have searched through my music library and found a perfect song that should be set to a “Screencast” of what a hypothetical perverted admin that spies on 42 computer thieves would see. The short video should be stylized in real-time like a 42, Ooops, I meant a “24” episode.

Pa’ Bailar (Instrumental Album Version)

I simply don’t have time to work it, but if you have Vegas or Final Cut, they should get to work on this project right away. I think when you hear the song, you’ll shit bricks. Hope the song inspires you.

Anonymous Coward says:

About the case

I live in NJ and Channel 6 had a spot on this topic. They interviewed the family of the child that was reprimanded. Apparently, even in ones’ own home, you can’t sell drugs. Whoever in the school district activated the webcam and took screen shots of the child apparently doing something with drugs. When questioned and interviewed, Mike and Ike’s were the drug of choice.

It’s been a couple years since I read anything pertaining to law, but am I correct that somewhere it states you can do what you want in your home as long as you don’t take it out in public?

I know that candy is a popular choice among children, even schools have vending machines. Could you say that schools possess and distribute these clearly illegal substances? 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: About the case

Nonetheless, it’s quite possible that there may be a few well established laws that govern use of “wiretapping” and “bugs” that date to a scandal called “Watergate”. If the students were engaging in said activities, and the evidence was acquired in a lawful way, the district should have contacted the proper authorities.

However, the evidence wasn’t acquired lawfully.

My question is how did they arrive at the conclusion that they were using or selling drugs in their home? Did the student have their Miranda Rights read to them? Did the school send a forensics expert to the home to test for illegal substances? Outside of the computer, that is.

Also, is it possible that they also captured an audio feed in addition to the video which corroborated the events in the video? How else would they have extrapolated that they were using or distributing illegal substances? Without legally acquired evidence the entire argument presented by the School District could fail and the school’s claim is merely based on rumors and hearsay. What we can point to is that in at least one situation, a house was bugged, privacy was violated, and this was probably acceptable mode of operation.

So far, the district has indicated that they only use the “feature” to locate lost or stolen laptops, yet I haven’t read anywhere that the laptop was reported lost or stolen. Thusly, this seems to be more of a violation of privacy, and a method to smear people as well as acquire evidence separate from a legally obtained and executed warrant.

Watching You says:


What I find most disturbing is that it took reprimanding a student before this was found out. How many school employees were involved in this that never once brought this up. What does no one wanna come out and say hey can we do this. I mean anyone seeing this you would think that it is fundamentally wrong. I’m wondering how many employees hands would these photos go through. I think they should fire anyone even remotely involved. I mean come on If you saw a child being raped what do you wait until there pregnant before you say anything. WTF is wrong with people

wireless camera (user link) says:

Wireless cameras

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