PBS show highlights ease of using big brother technology
Monday, Feb 22nd, 2010
The case of the Lower Merion school district in Philadelphia spying on students in their homes via school issued laptops has gone viral, with the FBI announcing that it has opened an investigation into the matter.
As we reported Friday,  the district faces a class action lawsuit after it allegedly issued laptop computers to 1,800 students across two high schools and then used concealed cameras within the machines to covertly monitor the behaviour of students and their parents.
In addition to charges of invasion of privacy, theft of private information, and unlawful interception, the school district has now become the focus of an FBI probe , as well as an investigation by Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.
An FBI spokesman, speaking anonymously, told CNN  it was investigating to see if wiretap or computer intrusion laws had been broken.
Students from the school described the schools alleged actions as “disgusting” and “a little scary”.
“How do I trust this school district when they have done something like this?” one parent asked.
Watch CNN’s report below:
District Superintendent Christopher McGinley has issued a statement rejecting the allegations:
“At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security- tracking software. We believe that the administrator at Harriton (High School) has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family. The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action.”
However, according to the case against them, the evidence the plaintiffs cite includes a warning from the school to Mr Michael Robbins’ son Blake for “improper behavior in his home,” with a photo school officials took from the remote computer camera.
Mr Robbins and his family have told reporters  that an official mistook a piece of candy for a pill and thought Blake was selling drugs.
Doug Young, spokesman for the Lower Merion District, told CNN that the district would only remotely access a laptop if it was reported lost, stolen or missing, a claim reiterated by Superintendent McGinley:
“While we understand the concerns, in every one of the fewer than 50 instances in which the tracking software was used this school year, its sole purpose was to try to track down and locate a student’s computer,” he wrote. “While certain rules for laptop use were spelled out – such as prohibitive uses on and off school property – there was no explicit notification that the laptop contained the security software. This notice should have been given and we regret that was not done.”
While the school district denies it ever used the tracking software for anything other than looking for stolen computers, it seems other schools across the country are actively using the same or similar technology to monitor students.
The following clip is from PBS FRONTLINE: Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, broadcast earlier this month. The clip is from segment 4 of the show titled Teaching with Technology.
It effectively demonstrates the technology that has caused uproar in the Lower Merion case.
The Assistant Principal of the featured high school demonstrates how he effectively spies on students by remotely accessing cameras in their laptops. He monitors their activity and even takes pictures of them, much to his own amusement:
The entire show PBS show can be found here:
As we reported over the weekend, the technology is not limited to schools and students. Four years ago Google admitted that it was implementing similar invasive surveillance technologies  that would target all Americans.
It remains to be seen how effective an FBI investigation in the case of Lower Merion will be, given that the computers in question were provided via an initiative partially funded by federal grants.
Additionally, in a country where the federal government has covertly spied on it’s own citizens for decades , it is, unfortunately, hard to imagine justice being metered out in this case.