Laptop Spy Scandal Administrator Just "Loved" Violating Students' Fourth Amendment Rights

from the surveillance-state-soap-opera dept

Earlier this year a school outside of Philadelphia was busted giving students laptops that included hidden software that covertly allowed school officials to turn on the cameras and monitor the students — no matter where they were. The not-so-brilliant scheme came to light when one child was disciplined for behavior that was only captured thanks to these laptops. Not surprisingly, a fairly huge scandal was born, followed by a lawsuit against the school district. The school district has long claimed that the surveillance system was only used to locate missing laptops. But a new motion (pdf) filed as part of the lawsuit now claims that not only were thousands of photos taken, many were taken of students who never reported their laptops missing. Meanwhile, the lawyer claims to have e-mails from the plan administrator (who has been pleading the fifth) highlighting how she was really having a great time watching student "soap operas" unfold:

"Back at district offices, the Robbins motion says, employees with access to the images marveled at the tracking software. It was like a window into "a little LMSD soap opera," a staffer is quoted as saying in an e-mail to Carol Cafiero, the administrator running the program. "I know, I love it," she is quoted as having replied."

One family involved in the suit provided evidence that their 15-year-old son was photographed more than 400 times over the course of two weeks last fall (his laptop was neither missing or stolen), but their lawyer provided just one surprisingly well lit and framed (for a laptop) photo taken of their son sleeping. The school district has subsequently issued a statement admitting the system took photos, but denying that they engaged in any deliberate wrong doing or that the photos were used for any "inappropriate purposes." Senator Arlen Specter, engaged in a heated battle for re-election, used the story as a springboard to call for tougher federal wiretap laws. Specter went so far as to hold a hearing near the school, where one parent insisted that warnings would be enough:

"Bob Wegbreit said a warning might suffice to let families know the district might activate webcams without a student’s knowledge. Students could then choose to keep the computers in other parts of the house, instead of their bedrooms, said Wegbreit, whose group fears the lawsuit will damage the upscale district’s finances and reputation."

It might be a little too late for that, Bob (besides, "warnings" don’t trump that whole Fourth Amendment thing). Even if you could somehow argue the project didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment, it remains mind boggling that anybody, at any level in the district, would think that off-site covert photography of students was a bright idea for any reason. As more and more schools offer kids laptops and netbooks, this case acts as a reminder to parents and students to ask questions as these kinds of programs are developed elsewhere. It’s also a warning shot to administrators who think protecting their property (or personal amusement) trumps a student’s right to privacy at home. You do start to wonder where people could possibly be getting the idea that surveillance with no recourse to law or common sense is a good idea.

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Comments on “Laptop Spy Scandal Administrator Just "Loved" Violating Students' Fourth Amendment Rights”

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61 Comments
Ima Fish (profile) says:

it remains mind boggling that anybody, at any level in the district, would think that off-site covert photography of students was a bright idea for any reason

Educationalists are generally educated. They all have college degrees to prove it. But they tend to graduate from the bottom third of their classes. Anyone who is genuinely bright goes and does genuinely bright things. But those who can’t, teach instead.

My wife is a psychologist who works in the public schools and she shocked at how utterly ignorant and closed minded these people are.

And you have realize that administrators are merely former teachers, who were taken out of the classroom because they were poor teachers. Good teachers are never promoted out of the classroom, only those who can’t teach get to become administrators.

So think about it, those who do, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, administer teachers. It’s a very scary system.

A Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m not sure that’s true of all paths to teaching. There are decent post-graduate programs for talented people in industry to have a mid-life crisis and convert to teaching. Your “bottom third” probably only applies to people who go to teaching straight out of college.

I can’t say I disagree with you about administrators, though.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

There are decent post-graduate programs for talented people in industry to have a mid-life crisis and convert to teaching.

Yes, but what percentage of the entire population of public school teachers are made up of “talented people in industry.” .01%? Show me some stats that these people make up a statistically relevant portion of the public teaching population, otherwise, it’s just BS.

Your “bottom third” probably only applies to people who go to teaching straight out of college

And that’s where the vast majority of public teachers come from. Which is my point. Thanks for pointing out exactly what I’ve already said.

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“I’m not sure that’s true of all paths to teaching.”

No, not really. The problem is that the ‘teachers’ colleges’ focus on “teaching,” and not on the subjects that they’re purporting to teach. Where I grew up there were a lot of private schools that prided themselves on the number of PhDs on staff, and I’m sure they had better results than a school that hired exclusively from the teacher mills. Pedagogy should be a summer course, and the rest of your education should be in the subject you claim to be able to teach.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I always thought the “those who can’t do, teach” sentiment to be kind of simplistic, given corporations organically leech most of the talent from our underpaid education system (it’s just especially noticeable at the admin level). To then infer the people who remain in schools (many because they actually LOVE education opposed to the pursuit of wealth) ALL collectively suffer from some deep and personal character flaw — is a fairly significant FU to the entire profession.

I’m not a teacher, but I think I might raise my educator dukes at that statement if I were. 🙂

jsf (profile) says:

Re: It's the Administrators, Mostly

My dad taught high school industrial arts, wood working, metals, drafting, etc. for over 30 years. SO I am a little biased I suppose.

Most of the teachers are pretty good and actually understand what’s what. The administrators and school boards often have no clue or are all about “maintaining control”. They are also often pretty conservative, compared to most teachers. Especially the elected school boards.

So it’s almost always the administrators that end up causing the uproars like this, not the teachers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Consent exception

Except they are minors and do not have legal authority to consent in this manor. Consent has to be explicit, and even if the minors signed a contract they can cancel a contract at any time with a word, although most kids don’t know they can just get out of a contract if they don’t like the terms. And if the pictures show them naked they are illegal no matter what kind of wavers of liability their parents sign.

Cynyr (profile) says:

my take, electronic devices with prominent cameras running unknown software were voluntarily allowed on and open in the home. No real 4th amendment issue. Of course I would probably have made it connect to my network on it’s own net, with all traffic logged and fed into an IDS. If after a week or two it seems to be behaving then maybe, maybe i let it into my real network. It is a UNIX computer with admin access allowed to a third party, and it has a web cam, enough said. Don’t want pics taken don’t use it. There really isn’t a 4th amendment issue here. How many of you would take a computer (with cam/mic) that is being maintained by the police into you home?

Cynyr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Look, it was an “untrusted” electronic device with a camera.

I’m not saying it was a good thing, but it wasn’t “unknown” like everyone seems to think it was, all of this school owned equipment has tracking software or remote access software. These are unix machines that ship with SSH(off but it’s one check box), how would “cat /dev/cam >> pic1.jpg && scp pic1.jpg admin@school_admin_comp:/pic1.jpg” not do the same thing this software did?

Again this is a problem, but not “without them knowing”. I may be expecting too much, but how many people would operate a large power tool without under standing how it works. yep no physical harm done here, but look at all the other harm.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“These are unix machines that ship with SSH(off but it’s one check box), how would “cat /dev/cam >> pic1.jpg && scp pic1.jpg admin@school_admin_comp:/pic1.jpg” not do the same thing this software did?”

It would accomplish the same end, of course, but I’m not sure how that helps your argument.

This was absolutely unknown. Sure, everyone was told the capability was there, but what was unknown was that it was being used in ways that weren’t disclosed.

Your cell phone can be activated and used to eavesdrop and track you without any indication that it’s happening, even when it’s “off.” Are you saying that if the government did so against you for nefarious purposes, you would say that the use was not unknown? Would you be as sanguine about that as about this?

Cynyr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

i would that the the ability for the device to do that was not unknown, and should i want my location to be unknown or what not i would leave it in a bag at home. The instance would be unknown. I should look over my contract with my cell phone provider to see if they disclose that ability.

Do you have a copy of the agreement handed to the parents to sign? does it say something along the lines of “machines are equipped with tracking software for locating and monitoring the device”? if so that seems to leave open what happened. It’s a huge mistake, but not really unknown.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“I should look over my contract with my cell phone provider to see if they disclose that ability.”

They do not, in detail. Your contract simply says something along the lines of them cooperating with law enforcement. However, the law does.

“if so that seems to leave open what happened.”

As you say about the cell phone, the instance is unknown. The parents were informed of capability, but told that it was only used when tracking down stolen laptops. This laptop was not stolen. And, judging by the video in a previous post, as well as comments made by school official now and earlier, most or all of the other non-stolen laptops were monitored in this way as well.

So, this use was unknown, unauthorized, illegal, and a violation of the fourth amendment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Ok, so if someone gave you a phone, and that someone had a spy device in place and never told you about it, and you went about your business using the computer, and that someone logged your activities, and you don’t consider that a 4th amendment violation? Because it was the school makes this no different, if it were the police it would be no different, it a violation period!!! Just because something was voluntarily given and voluntarily accepted does not give up ones right to the 4th amendment.

ps and its just like a dweeb to rant on about what he would have done in such a situation whilst talking in third person geek. were talking about school children and parents that may or may not be tech savvy. So all the BS about IDS and traffic logging is just air trapped in your ass….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

No, stay with me on this one. I would first test by putting it on my network with a cardboard goatse image taped in front of the camera. Then the IDS junk that I mentioned. Then…umm..then I’d run a DUX scan over the PCV and lock down ORT to JMVQN. If those kids can’t do these things then they’re just retards.

Seriously though, you’re exactly right. For 99% of those kids and their parents he may as well have been speaking a language he made up (like the acronyms I made up in the previous paragraph). They probably had no idea that you could remotely activate the cameras. It probably never even crossed their minds. Just because some nerd with hindsight on his/her side comes up with a plan, that doesn’t mean any of those people would have even come CLOSE to that same solution. Hell, I probably wouldn’t have and I understood what he said. My solution would have been “The teachers are making you use that for homework? Go do your damned homework on it then.”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: The problem is...

While I agree with you, and keep my own LAN incredibly locked down and monitored, both for incoming and outgoing traffic, I am a huge computer geek going back a number of decades.

The problem is that it’s unrealistic, and (I would argue) wrong to require or expect ordinary people to have this level of interest or ability. Most people aren’t huge nerds like us. What you are saying, in effect, is that no parents should ever take a school up on an offer to let their kids use school computers at home.

What the parents did was to believe a trusted authority figure when that authority figure was bald-faced lying to them. Now, one could say that we should never trust authority figures (and I am very sympathetic to that point of view), but practically speaking, we all do to varying degrees. And we have to, or society would grind to a halt and/or devolve into anarchy.

Your police analogy isn’t really relevant, as in most people’s eyes, there’s quite a difference between the police and the school. Far fewer people trust the police than the school.

There’s a huge 4th amendment issue, as the standard is “reasonable expectation of privacy.” “Reasonable” as in “what an average, reasonable person would expect.” I think your average reasonable person expects that when the school says they’re not invading your privacy, they’re not.

weneedhelp (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“my take, electronic devices with prominent cameras running unknown software were voluntarily allowed on and open in the home. No real 4th amendment issue.”

Ok, go get your wife/daughter (are they hot?) a macbook, give it to me, then I will give it back.

Dont blame me when your wife and daughter’s pics are all over the internetwebs with their clothes off.

Still no 4th issue?

“Of course I would probably have made it connect to my network on it’s own net, with all traffic logged and fed into an IDS. If after a week or two it seems to be behaving then maybe, maybe i let it into my real network.”

These parents did not have that option. They had no way of knowing, or SHOULD even have to think about something like that.

“How many of you would take a computer (with cam/mic) that is being maintained by the police into you home?”
Are you an idiot? No, really, because it appears so.

Cynyr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Ok, go get your wife/daughter (are they hot?) a macbook, give it to me, then I will give it back.
sure, you get the “guest” account with “bios” password and no admin rights, even after i got it back it would probably be wiped. Computers are not toasters and should not be treated as such.

Still no 4th issue?
Nope not really, i assume the computer has been compromised. Also the constitution applies to the government not private individuals, mostly.

These parents did not have that option. They had no way of knowing, or SHOULD even have to think about something like that.
They had an option to prevent it from doing things in the home, leave out of the home, or keep it turned off, a bit of tape. If it is too much work what they needed was an appliance not a general purpose personal computer.

Are you an idiot? No, really, because it appears so.
Who cares who is maintaining it? if it’s not yours it could be doing anything. I was picking a group that would prompt a reaction.

I’m not condoning the actions of the school, just the raising of 4th amendment and the whole “we had no idea that it was doing that” hysteria seems out of place. I think the school should be taken to the cleaners over this. More than just the one admin, but anyone that knew the system was capable of doing this, or approved funding for it (i’m looking at you school board). This seems way overblown. I would like to see a verbatim copy of the agreement signed to take responsibility for the computer, it may have a clause like “machine is equipped with software to assist in locating it should it be deemed necessary by the administrator(s).”

vilain (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The problem a former student mentioned is that those students that put tape over the camera or tried reloading the OS with a clean copy of MacOS were threatened with expulsion. And accepting the laptop was manditory, not optional. All students were expected to have them like their school issued textbooks.

This sort thing is taken to an extreme in Cory Doctorow’s LITTLE BROTHER where such laptops are standard everywhere. The hero’s solution, a hacked PS3 running an ubersecure Linux. I’ll bet Cory’s laughing his ass off right now. He should sue the district for copyright infringement. They stole his idea.

Anonymous Coward says:

my take, electronic devices with prominent cameras running unknown software were voluntarily allowed on and open in the home.

What is so “voluntary” about required laptops that cannot be replaced with ones own? You are obviously not familiar with the story, try reading more.

No real 4th amendment issue.
Yes there is. Apparently you are unfamiliar with 4th Amendment as well.

Of course I would probably have made it connect to my network on it’s own net, with all traffic logged and fed into an IDS.

Oh yes, just like any other student out there… oh wait, you are just showing off how much of a geek you are. Move along now.

Cynyr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m assuming you replied to yourself.

What is so “voluntary” about required laptops that cannot be replaced with ones own? You are obviously not familiar with the story, try reading more.
Yep, but no requirement to turn them on or use them in the home.

Yes there is. Apparently you are unfamiliar with 4th Amendment as well.
Seems like it says “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Looks like they assumed some participation from the people to ensure their security. Again the tricky word is unreasonable

Oh yes, just like any other student out there… oh wait, you are just showing off how much of a geek you are. Move along now.andAnd if you had read the story you would understand that you would have been expelled for changing any internet setting in the computer.
As a note, I am no longer a student, high school was 7 years ago, and college was 2. No internet settings changed on the computer, the DHCP server and related network equipment would be changed. to make it connect that way. If it wasn’t getting a DHCP address it probably wouldn’t work on my home network anyways. So nope, no need to change settings on the computer to make it work like that. Also there is the concept of a transparent proxy. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxy_server#Transparent_and_non-transparent_proxy_server So again no need to adjust the computer at all. As for the data logging it’s simply a man in the middle attack(which i feel is fine on my own network). As for those less tech savvy, tape would have helped this out a lot.

I’m sorry(and somewhat offended) that I came off as a 16 year old. Guess that my tin foil hat is a bit too tight.

Anonymous Coward says:

“You do start to wonder where people could possibly be getting the idea that surveillance with no recourse to law or common sense is a good idea. “

This is a Main Line Philly school, with the resources to hire the best and brightest to teach these kids. And they thought THIS was a good idea?

“A little soap opera?” What, are these people 6?

interval says:

Re: Re:

Sure, a good rule of thumb ASSUMING; you innately do not trust the person/entity/corporation giving you a laptop with a camera; KNOW what the little hole at the top of the “lid” of the laptop is; HAVE an “always on” internet connection; UNDERSTAND that it is possible some one could install software to activate that camera at any time you are connected to the internet with the laptop. The list of what if’s could lead one around a scenario more complicated than the final states of the marbles in a pachinko game. Its hardly a good solution to this. And what this is is actually an incredible violation of students constitutional rights, assuming the school is a public one run by the county of its location. The remedy here is to this school system hard and heavy legally.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You’re talking like the children were some kind of systems or network administrators, like they had full access, rights and control of the machines. “Install from manufacturer disks” is just bizarre.

You have missed the point. The kids (and their parents) TRUSTED the school rules which state that random and arbitrary spying on pupils is NOT the intended use (by implying that ONLY where a laptop is missing or stolen will it be utilised). It was based on trust and that trust was abused. Nobody ever agreed to be randomly monitored whenever the voyeur felt like it. It is NOT that it is ignorance, it is simply that it is NOT paranoia. You seem to be finding this rather difficult to grasp.

Blatant Coward (profile) says:

If some 50 year old guy infected these computers with a virus to remote trigger the cameras on kids, and he was even reported to have taken one snap, the FBI would be on his network like yum on chocolate.

Now we have a mid 50’s administrator with literally thousands of pics on his network, but are there any crashing doors? port scans? packet sniffing?

The fix is already in, don’t expect a conviction of these dipwads. The lesson today class: get in good with the man, and he will get it in you good.

Spanky says:

Re:ing your Re:

“As opposed to the ignorance displayed by geek writing on this topic I suppose. Dumbsh**s, this has nothing to do with teachers. It was administrators and the IT dept.”

Dumbsh**, you work for a school in any capacity, you are teaching kids. By their actions, the administrators and IT people have now taught these kids its OK to abuse 4th amendment rights.

Rod (profile) says:

School laptops

The parents and kids were informed that the laptops had the capability to use software to turn on the camera in the case of the laptop being stolen or lost. This whole scandal is about the simple fact that they were using the capability outside it’s described function to eavesdrop on kids. I’m a CTO and we use remote control software on all of our PC’s. If anyone was caught using the software for other than providing support, the culprit would be terminated immediately. To use the software for personal enjoyment is not only wrong, it’s just down right sick. Way out of bounds on this one.

Not a LMSD says:

Not at all surprised

Come on people! I am not at all surprised with the reactions of all these other parents in the LMSD and how they think warnings are enough. These people do not want to destroy the tony reputation of their schools. Remember this is a predominantly white, Republican school district. These people are OK with big brother watching and have no issues in giving up personal liberty for security – these are the very people who encouraged the right wing neocons we had in Washington for the last 8 years.

For them – keeping their taxes in line and preserving their school district’s reputation (hence thie kids college prospects) are more important than the right to privacy and the 4th amendment.

Free Capitalist (profile) says:

Re: Not at all surprised

Sorry, but violations of privacy by government and government funded agencies clearly stem from the government in place: the so called “two-party” system. Neither “party” has taken a very high ground on this issue.

And neither have the “democrats”, who reign in both the congress and the white house, taken one step to repeal any part of the Patriot act or remove any safe harbors from the equally culpable telcos who provided spy services.

IMO, if you support either side of the Dem-Repub “debate”, then you are partially to blame for the state of emergency in which our fundamental rights now exist.

known coward says:

We should take a lesson from the chinese

and execute the administrators.

Ok i am being sacastic, but i would like to see jail time for the folks responsible. Examples need to be made, so this is not repeated everywhere.

Schools should not be in the business of handing out computers. Desktops in the classroom work just as well as laptops. If the kids need computer time after school that is why there are libraries and computer labs in the schools.

Next is the self taken child porn on the laptops. MMMM now who is responsible for that?

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