How Broadly Did School Laptops Spy?

Remember the case of Blake Robbins? He’s the Pennsylvania student suing the Lower Merion School District over photos his school-issued laptop took while he was at home, thanks to a remotely activated security program that hijacked the computer’s webcam. The school always claimed that the program was only used to locate laptops that had gone missing or been stolen, and some reports suggested that Robbins might have triggered it by inappropriately taking home a temporary “loaner” laptop. I’ve argued elsewhere that this would still constitute a Fourth Amendment violation, but once the school announced it would stop using the security camera feature, parents could at least reassure themselves that Robbins’ case had been an aberration.

But now the teen’s lawyers have filed a motion alleging far broader and more disturbing surveillance—some of which the school seems to at least partly confirm.

The motion alleges that the webcam was active, not for a few minutes or hours one evening, but over two weeks, during which time it captured more than 400 screenshots and photos, including images of Blake asleep or partially undressed, and of private IM conversations. Not only that, but the discovery process appears to have uncovered “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots” of “numerous other students in their homes, many of which [sic] never reported their laptops lost or missing.” Also obtained by the plaintiffs were e-mails between school IT personnel, in which one supposedly describes webcam images as “a little LMSD soap opera,” to which another replies “I know, I love it!”

The school has responded in a statement denying any deliberate wrongdoing, but admitting that their investigation had uncovered a “substantial number of webcam photos” of students. They intend to contact the families of any students pictured so that they can see what images were taken—images that it seems the families previously had no idea existed.

Suppose the school is telling the truth—that all this happened without anyone deliberately attempting to spy on school children.  Shouldn’t that be even more disturbing? If this really can happen by accident, shouldn’t we be asking how many of the hundreds of other one-to-one schools in the country have similar security programs? Asking how many other such “accidents” there may have been?

It seems like only a matter of time before schools issuing computing devices is no rarer than schools issuing textbooks; not all of those schools will necessarily think deeply about the privacy implications of building surveillance capabilities into a network of devices toted by kids. They’ll understandably be thinking about how to protect their investment in those laptops or tablets. If parents don’t ask questions about student privacy when the systems are being built and the computers being purchased, there’s every reason to think we’ll start seeing more cases like this one.