Lower Merion report: MacBook webcams snapped 56,000 clandestine images of high schoolers

Interactive T-Shirts banner“Lower Merion School District employees activated the web cameras and tracking software on laptops they gave to high school students about 80 times in the past two school years, snapping nearly 56,000 images that included photos of students, pictures inside their homes and copies of the programs or files running on their screens, district investigators have concluded,” John P. Martin reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“In most of the cases, technicians turned on the system after a student or staffer reported a laptop missing and turned it off when the machine was found, the investigators determined,” Martin reports. “But in at least five instances, school employees let the Web cams keep clicking for days or weeks after students found their missing laptops, according to the review. Those computers – programmed to snap a photo and capture a screen shot every 15 minutes when the machine was on – fired nearly 13,000 images back to the school district servers.”

“The data, given to The Inquirer on Monday by a school district lawyer, represents the most detailed account yet of how and when Lower Merion used the remote tracking system, a practice that has sparked a civil rights lawsuit, an FBI investigation and new federal legislation,” Martin reports. “The district’s attorney, Henry Hockeimer, declined to describe in detail any of the recovered Web cam photos, or identify the people in them or their surroundings. He said none appeared to show “salacious or inappropriate” images but said that in no way justified the use of the program. ‘The taking of these pictures without student consent in their homes was obviously wrong,’ Hockeimer said.”

Martin reports, “About 38,500 images – or almost two-thirds of the total number retrieved so far – came from six laptops that were reported missing from the Harriton High School gymnasium in September 2008. The tracking system continued to store images from those computers for nearly six months, until police recovered them and charged a suspect with theft in March 2009. The next biggest chunk of images stem from the five or so laptops where employees failed or forgot to turn off the tracking software even after the student recovered the computer.”

Read more in the full article here.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Fred Mertz” for the heads up.]

42 Comments

  1. So the moral of this story is:

    1. Apple’s tech works great and did exactly what it was supposed to do.
    2. The human element failed because they forgot to follow up after the units were recovered and switch off the system.
    3. Tech is only as good as the people who use it.

    Maybe Apple need to add a timer into the system so that the tracking functions operates for a limited time only.

  2. These people need to be made an example of. It’s one thing to track the whereabouts of the equipment itself, it’s another thing to spy on kids when they aren’t at school.

  3. Its one thing to leave the cameras on taking pictures. That could be a mistake. But there are plenty of other ways to track the laptops as well.

    But to trade emails about what the cameras were taking pictures of….

  4. I have similar software on my own laptop. The picture taking is meant ID the user of the stolen laptop as an addition to providing a location. It is a screw up that the system was not deactivated, but it hardly seems malicious if only a few computers were affected.

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