Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Webcams used to spy on students

Photo Credit : Fennell

If you have a laptop, it probably has a webcam. You may have used the camera to Skype with friends studying abroad, take wacky pictures with Photo booth or chat with random strangers on Chatroulette.

But what would that webcam record if it flicked on at anytime, anywhere, and without your knowledge? And what if authorities could access those images whenever they liked?

Imagine that the school administration used webcams to capture 2-West residents smoking pot in Jewett Hall while listening to Toots and the Maytals, and then used those photographs as evidence to punish the offending students. Sounds like something out of “1984,” right?

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania high school student Blake Robbins recently found out that such an Orwellian scenario is not the stuff of science fiction. Last November, Robbins’ vice principal called him into her office. She accused him of taking illegal drugs.

The evidence? A photograph taken from the webcam on Robbins’ school-issued MacBook that showed him handling pill-shaped objects. The camera snapped the picture at Robbins’ home: without his knowledge or permission.

Lower Marion School District recently began loaning laptops to every high school student in the district for free. Unbeknownst to the students, there was a catch: Administrators loaded the laptops with security software that could remotely activate the computers’ webcams.

School administrators did not notify students or their families that they could monitor the computers, and students who complained that the indicator light next to their webcams would occasionally illuminate were told that their computers had a glitch.

But this was no glitch. Lower Marion School District was intentionally and systematically spying on its students outside of school hours.

Last week, Robbins’ family filed a class-action lawsuit against the school district for violating students’ civil rights and privacy. In response, the district admitted that it had activated the security system without students’ permission: not once, not twice, but 42 times over the past school year. The cameras, they claimed, were only activated in cases of missing or stolen laptops.

The school district’s claim that the cameras were used only on missing computers seems suspicious in light of Blake Robbins’ trip to the vice principal’s office. Regardless of whether their motives were legitimate, district administrators vastly overstepped their authority and blatantly violated students’ privacy.

It’s easy to picture scenarios that could result in school officials snapping embarrassing or inappropriate photos of students. One Lower Marion student who brought her laptop into the bathroom to play music while she showered worried that school employees may have photographed her in the nude. This possibility is simply unacceptable. School administrators should not be peeping Toms.

Making matters even worse, experts have pointed out that the intrusive security measures are ineffective. Any pictures from a stolen laptop’s camera could never prove that the person photographed stole the computer and would be laughed out of court. Less intrusive strategies such as GPS tracking devices would actually be more effective at preventing theft.

The Robbins family claims the school district actually caught Blake abusing Mike & Ike’s, his favorite candy. But it shouldn’t matter whether the pictures showed Blake Robbins eating candy, drinking Jack Daniels or snorting lines of cocaine off of a prostitute. Schools simply have no right to electronically spy on their students and their after-school activities. Lower Marion School District officials deserve their own trip to the principal’s office: or in this case, an angry judge’s courtroom. Let’s hope they receive harsh punishment.

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