Feeds

US school comes out fighting over webcam spy claim

UK.gov promises it couldn't happen here

Top three mobile application threats

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. ®

3 Big data security analytics techniques

More from The Register

next story
Putin tells Snowden: Russia conducts no US-style mass surveillance
Gov't is too broke for that, Russian prez says
One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work
Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers
Edward Snowden on his Putin TV appearance: 'Why all the criticism?'
Denies Q&A cameo was meant to slam US, big-up Russia
Record labels sue Pandora over vintage song royalties
Companies want payout on recordings made before 1972
Lavabit loses contempt of court appeal over protecting Snowden, customers
Judges rule complaints about government power are too little, too late
MtGox chief Karpelès refuses to come to US for g-men's grilling
Bitcoin baron says he needs another lawyer for FinCEN chat
Don't let no-hire pact suit witnesses call Steve Jobs a bullyboy, plead Apple and Google
'Irrelevant' character evidence should be excluded – lawyers
EFF: Feds plan to put 52 MILLION FACES into recognition database
System would identify faces as part of biometrics collection
Ex-Tony Blair adviser is new top boss at UK spy-hive GCHQ
Robert Hannigan to replace Sir Iain Lobban in the autumn
Judge halts spread of zombie Nortel patents to Texas in Google trial
Epic Rockstar patent war to be waged in California
prev story

Whitepapers

Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.