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The FBI has said it will be checking to see if any federal wiretapping or computer-related laws were broken by a Pennsylvania school district in connection with an incident in which someone turned on the webcam in a school-issued computer and spied on a student in his own home.

The incident occurred in Lower Merion School District, located in Montgomery County near Philadelphia. The county district attorney also is investigating.

Last week, a student filed suit in federal court after facing disciplinary action as a result of information collected from the web cam on his school-issued Apple laptop. In the complaint, he alleges that school officials confronted him with a photograph of him engaging in “improper behavior” that was taken in his home.

The school had installed the webcam spyware on the 2,300 laptops issued to high school students in order to help find the machines if they were lost or stolen. Only two employees were authorized to activate the cameras.

. . .

Preserving privacy gets tougher and tougher as technology develops. Perfectly legitimate information systems are full of personal information or access to it — such as this case — and search technology it is getting better and better. It just makes it too easy for employees to snoop or officials to misuse the systems. Guarding privacy is a serious job involving licensing agreements, procedures for employees who access data, intrusion prevention and hopefully encryption.

This story is about a serious insider threat. Only two people were supposed to have access to the technology to turn on the web cams and it was only to be used only to find lost or stolen machines. Instead, according to the suit, the system was used by someone for some kind of enforcement action that wasn’t spelled out to the students and their families in advance.

The result is a FEDERAL criminal investigation and a FEDERAL lawsuit in addition to a possible action in county court. That is tremendously damaging to the school district’s reputation, is probably going to cost the district a load of money and is probably going to cost some people their jobs.

It’s easy to get paranoid about the cameras and government monitoring systems that seem to expand with each year. About five years ago a security researcher I knew began saying: “there’s no privacy. Get over it.”

I had hoped he was just being pessimistic. I’m not too sure any more.

Oh yea, for the other 2,299 students in the Lower Marion School District: a piece of duct tape over the web cam in your school computer is a good lo-tech remediation.

Story here: “F.B.I. Queries Webcam Use by Schools”

Update 02/23:

Absolute Software of Vancouver, BC, Canada, the maker of the tracking software the school district used, has condemned the “vigilantism” that resulted in this brouhaha.

Absolute said the district was using LANRev software, which most school district customers use for power management. Absolute acquired the LANRev technology last year and calls it a “legacy” product. The software includes a feature called Theft Track, which allows investigators to switch on a laptop’s camera to photograph thieves when computer is stolen. The company said it would update its Absolute Manage product shortly and disable the Theft Track feature.

According to the Lower Merion school district, the IT staff has switched on the camera of missing computers 42 times this school year and recovered 18 machines.

The 16-year-old student whose parents brought the federal suit said he was accused of selling drugs and taking them by his principal after the webcam in his computer was turned on. He claimed the recorded images showed him eating candy.

ComputerWorld story here: “Software maker blasts ‘vigilantism’ in Pa. school spying case”

Tom Kelchner