Last week, the AP published a story about a family filing a federal lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia alleging that it was spying on students and their families through school-issued Apple laptops. The school gave all 2,300 students at its two high schools the laptops which come with a webcam as part of a technology/education initiative.
According to the AP story, the school district said that the laptops "contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops." It also has said that it has deactivated the feature and will not reactivate it "without express written notification to all students and families."
According to the school district's website:
"Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. The security feature was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student...Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District's security and technology departments. 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, the family suing the school district claims otherwise, saying that the webcam was used to watch it in "compromising" situations. The school denies it, even though it does admit to activating laptop webcams 42 times and taking still images from them.
Now there are reports that the FBI and a Philadelphia district attorney may investigate the incident. Some legal experts believe that the school crossed the legal line by activating the cameras and not letting parents and students that they could do so.
In a related news story, high school students using government provided laptops in Australia are reportedly using them to exchange ideas on Facebook and other social media web sites on how to get around the Australian government's embedded laptop security-software, which includes, "includes content filtering, system identification and theft protection," the Sydney Morning Herald reported last week.
The Herald says that the government is monitoring those web sites. If a student is found to be offering hacking technical advice, the laptop could be taken away and the student punished.
The Australian government is committed to giving out a free laptop to every public school student from grades 9 to 12, about 141,000 in all.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.