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. @Spark. Power doesn’t corrupt. Fear corrupts. However, that’s off-topic.

    On-topic. If any of my kids come home with a school-supplied Mac with a camera and/or mic, I can guaren-damn-tee you *I* will have root on that system. Even if it means wiping the system and starting clean.

  2. The ignorant useless comments are useless. Lower Merion is one of the top ten richest school districts in the country. The community serving it as a higher mean income than freaking Beverly Hills. So before you spout off about things read the article and know what the hell you are talking about. Kids leave the catholic middle schools to freaking come to the public high school. no seriously. This has been a massive embarrassment, and as a former LM student, I feel no sympathy for the arrogant overpaid administrators in the district. They’ve had something like this coming to them for a long long time and I only pray that they manage to nail some of the real douche bags at the top and not just the IT guys.

  3. Nice sentiment but the computers handed out to the lower merion students were completely locked down. no terminal access no administrative access whatsoever the only way to get root would be to physically swap the hard drive for a clean one or brute force hack the administrative password. I don’t know how you could do that realistically. because there is never a prompt the machines are set up as if the terminal and all other utlities and library access simply did not exist to the user, and there is absolutely no installation of software allowed. You would have to crack it from a thumb drive with some nasty little bit of code. And no you can’t boot from disk on those machines, option disabled. no setting as a target disk and digging that way either.

  4. The parents were NOT told about the “feature” that is one of the issues at hand in the case. I live in the district and graduated form the school in 2004. This is all happening in my back yard… well 2 miles from it but still, its been fun sitting back with the popcorn and watching the nazi control freak administration apologists and the sane people going at each other in the community.

  5. Oh and for the macdailynews readers of which i am one, This case just keeps snowballing, at first the administration tried to get out ahead of the story and define it as an isolated incident, they owned up to using the feature 42 times but that was “it” now its up around 80 or more according to the article, and tens of thousands of photos not a few like they tried to define it early on just during the preliminary discovery, and there has been multiple accusations by the plaintiff of the school deleting evidence. I wonder just how deep the rabbit hole actually goes. If their track record of credibility stands, i’d bet it goes a lot deeper and a lot creepier than we know so far.

  6. The lesson here is that accepting a device with a camera on it from a government organization is dangerous. I’m all for laptops in schools, and if the school wants to help out the students by arranging for bulk purchase pricing, that’s great, but I’m not going to use a machine in my home that’s under someone else’s control. If I was going to put up with that, I might as well be running Windows.

    -jcr

  7. @@Farlo. It would probably take more than a drive swap to crack it. I know it would if I’d been setting it up. However, it doesn’t matter. I will have root or it doesn’t come in the house. Period. It doesn’t matter whether I buy it, the school buys it (with my money), or my kid(s) buy it with their savings. Dad has root.

    <insert rant about my belief that parents should take their kids more seriously here>

  8. Upon further reflection, I think I would let it in the house. I’d just put it up in the attic with the web-cam pointed at 11 x 17 glossies of something gleaned from goatse. Yeah…pry those images out of your mind’s eye… (Don’t google it. Seriously, don’t do it.)

    Then, I’d buy my kid their own MacBook…and I’d have root.

  9. One 4 LETTER word describes it: SICK.

    Two 4 letter words describe the solution: FIRE THEM…

    Fire anyone and everyone who had anything to do with the misuse.

    No one will want to dare do it again.

  10. @@What’d you expect?

    Poor, sad little Lieberal! You’re so tied in knots by irrational hatred of anyone who doesn’t think what they’re told to think, when they’re told to think it and in the manner they’re supposed to think it that you’ve nothing left but name calling.

    Grow some nads, or forever be a leftist and “sit down, shut up and do as you’re told”.

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