Friday, February 19, 2010

If this is true—it's damn frightening.

This is one of the more troubling stories that I've read in a long time. What I'm reading is the court filing in a lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District, on behalf of the minor, Blake Robbins, filed by his parents.

The school district issued laptops to the students. The laptops had webcams installed. In legalese the suit contends that the school district has "been spying on the activities of Plaintiffs and Class members (Blake and other students)" through the "indiscriminant use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students by the School District." '

The law suit contends that none of the literature given to students and their parents contains any reference "to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webacam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera at the time of the activation."

In other words, the government school district issued laptops to students and the district could activate the webcam and use it to spy on students anytime the computer was turned out. This was done without informing people this was possible and can be done without the knowledge of the computer user. Consider where students are likely to have their computers. It is not unusual for a student to take a laptop into their bedroom, where they undress, change clothes and engage in otherwise, very private activities. Yet school district bureaucrats can remotely use the students laptop to watch these activities.

This new method of spying on students, in the privacy of their home, was revealed when Blake was told by the Assistant Principal of Harrington High School, Lindy Matsko, that he "was engaged in improper behavior in his home." As proof of this improper behaviour the school showed him "a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff's personal laptop issued by the School District."

Blake's father, Michale, "verified, through Ms. Matsko, that the School District in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students' personal laptop computer issued by the School District at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer." Equally important is that this can be done so it "will capture anything happening in the room in which the laptop computer is located, regardless of whether the student is sitting at the computer and using it."

The suit says: "As the laptops at issue were routinely used by students and family members while at home, it is believed and therefore averred that many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various stages of dress or undress."

Unless the allegations in the suit are entirely invented by the family, which seems unlikely, this indicates a dangerous new method of putting the public under surveillance. The law suit is making claims based on laws that are supposed to protect privacy, due process for surveillance, and similar manners. I think they should go for the jugular.

Let us make a few points to law the foundation for having the School District arrested and tried as sex offenders. The District gave laptops to 1800 teenage students. In the laptop was a webcam that could be turned on by government bureaucrats to observe those students at any time, including in the privacy of their home. Almost 100% of these students will, at one time or another, engage in legal sexual activity in the privacy of their bedroom. By legal I mean either with another teen considered legally capable of consenting, or in masturbatory activity. With 1800 students engaging in such sex acts the possibility that computer will be sitting there is very high. And government bureaucrats may be watching said activity. Thus the School District has created a webcam operation which shows teens engaged in sexual activity.

It is entirely possible that the signals could be intercepted as well, by others, who may view these "sex webcam shows" that the School District created. The School District officials who set up the program, those who implemented the system, and all school officials who may view these webcams should thus be investigated immediately for the production and dissemination of child pornography. All those found involved should be required to register as sex offenders. In teens who engage in "sexting" voluntarily are arrested then why wouldn't it be a crime for school officials to drag teens involuntarily into something equally explicit?

This is precisely what these School Districts do to teens who engages in "sexting." School Districts, that discover that students voluntarily, and consensually, photograph themselves in the nude, routinely have those students arrested as child pornographers. So why should school officials, doing the same thing, but without the consent of the teens involved, be treated any differently? Criminal charges should be filed immediately.

In fact, along with the law suit, I think parents should file criminal complaints against the School District for the recording and dissemination of child pornographer because the District could watch underage students in the nude, or engaged in sexual activity.

The School District admits that the computers came with the remote webcam feature, which it claims, is only used "to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen" and that it is not used "for any other purpose." But Blake was disciplined for improper activity at home, which had nothing to do with a lost, missing or stolen computer. A photo, taken using the webcam, was provided to him as proof of his action. This indicates that the feature was, in fact, used for purposes other than tracking missing computers.

And while the School District says that the webcams will only be turned on, in the future, with the "express written notification to all students and families"—notice it doesn't require their consent, only that they be told it will be done—there is nothing to prevent school officials from turning on the feature, without notification, if only to browse for titillating scenes. What parent would take this sort of assurance seriously?

What the new policy boils down to is that the school district, or individual employees of the district, will have the ability to turn on the webcam at will, but promise they won't do so without warning students in advance. And, if the officials, don't announce they did it, but still do it anyway, how is that monitored? What assurances do parents have that school officials aren't getting their jollies by turning on the webcams during the hours students would be preparing for bed? The School District continues to have the ability to spy on students anytime it, or any one with access to the systems, wishes and all parents get is the promise that this won't be done. In other words, there is absolutely nothing to stop it happening but the solemn promise of a bunch of government bureaucrats—and we all know what that is worth.

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