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US school comes out fighting over webcam spy claim

UK.gov promises it couldn't happen here

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The UK agency in charge of IT in UK schools has insisted there is no chance of the government's free laptops program exposing the bedroom activities of British students.

The calming words for British parents comes after a US school district was sued for allegedly spying on a student in his bedroom via the webcam on his school supplied laptop.

The proud boast of Lower Merrion School District in Philadelphia is that it gives every one of their 1,800 high-schoolers laptop computers, to "ensure that all students have 24/7 access to school-based resources."

The catch – which isn’t even mentioned in the small print – is that whilst pupils are watching their laptops, their school may be watching them. This rather sinister twist to the tale came to light when the parents of student Blake Robbins were told by an official of Harriton High School last November that their son had been involved in "improper behavior in his home."

There are no further details of what this improper behaviour might constitute – and readers must draw their own conclusions as to the sort of behaviour a teenage school student might indulge in, if left alone in his bedroom with a PC.

However, what startled and then outraged Blake’s parents was the evidence provided: a photo of their son engaged in the "improper behaviour" cited, taken not on any friend’s camera – but by the webcam on the free school laptop.

Subsequent investigation revealed that this webcam could be – and in this case, was – activated remotely by persons working for the school.

According to the Robbins family, an assistant principal at Harriton High, Lindy Matsko, confirmed that the school district "in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student's personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose, and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the Webcam."

The Robbins family have reacted by talking to their lawyers – and this week they issued suit (pdf) against the school district, its board of governors, and Christopher McGinley, the Superintendent of the district.

They allege a veritable shopping list of wrongdoing, including not only breaches of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, but also the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, s1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, as well as Pennsylvania common law.

The school district has today responded robustly, claiming that the laptops come with webcam pre-installed and a tracking facility that would be used in case a laptop was stolen. They state: "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."

However, this feature has now been de-activated and they do not envisage reactivating it without permission from students and parents.

So could this happen in the UK? We asked BECTA - the government agency leading the national drive to spread technology into education for their views. Their response was a categoric no.

According to a spokeswoman for BECTA, families apply for funding for a laptop through the Home Access Initiative. Individual schools do not know which families have obtained PCs – and the initiative is about providing funding for families to go out and obtain their own PC, rather than the provision of PCs through a central state provider.

In other words: it couldn’t happen here.

Nonetheless, the story is a salutary warning to all those happily downloading helpful educational packages at home. If you don’t know the provenance of a site, you cannot be 100% sure what you are getting. Even when dealing with officialdom, the message from today’s episode seems to be that you should stay on your guard at all times. ®

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