Local government surveillance using your computer

Founded by William Penn in 1682, Philadelphia is known by many as the birthplace of freedom and liberty; however, for students of the Lower Merion School District, it’s more like a chapter from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In this increasingly connected age, all our movements, web histories, purchases and other data is constantly being collected, analyzed and logged. The UK currently holds the dubious distinction of being the nation with the most surveillance on the planet, based on number of cameras per person; however privacy seems to be eroding everywhere.

Just last week, the family of 15 year-old Blake Robbins filed a lawsuit against Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia, alleging that the school district activated the webcam in the student’s school-issued computer in order to photograph him in his own home.

The U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI on Monday said that they are investigating whether the district violated federal privacy laws.

That’s OK, for kids? Well, for all you corporate users out there, do you know that all activity on your Enterprise BlackBerry is logged and accessible by IT, even after you delete it? It seems that there is “delete” and there is “erase”.

According to local news reports in the Philadelphia case, the school district admitted that it did have the capacity to remotely turn on webcams. The district reportedly did so 42 times in the past couple of years, but only to “locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student.”

OK, so you get a picture of the person in front of the computer. The Robbins family claims that an assistant principal at the district’s Harriton High School accused their son of using drugs and cited, as evidence, a photograph of him taken in his own home via the Mac’s webcam. Blake said that the “pills” he was accused of taking were Mike and Ike candies. That doesn’t really sound like trying to locate a lost, missing or stolen computer to me.

In reality, the software used on these Macs is a remote management tool that enables administrators to manage laptops; including making sure that software is up to date and that programs are working properly. The software can also be used to take screenshots, track Internet or any other activity of the user, and to activate the built-in webcam.

Monday, a federal judge ordered the school to stop activating the cameras. The judge also ordered them to stop taking screenshots from the computers. The judge didn’t issue an injunction because the school consented to the decree.

It’s hard to buy a ready-built computer, especially a laptop, that doesn’t have a built-in camera; whether you want it or not. I don’t really like the idea of having my computer looking back at me and I’m just concerned enough to put a piece of tape over the pin-hole sized lens. That should solve the problem … unless they want to listen-in through the microphone!

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