Suramya's Blog : Welcome to my crazy life…

February 25, 2010

School spying on Kids with Laptops provided by the school

Filed under: My Thoughts,News/Articles — Suramya @ 11:31 PM

When we talk about Big Brother most people worry about government’s having the power to monitor what people are doing. Some worry about companies monitoring their staff but that too in the office. No one really thinks about how certain schools have decided to monitor their student bodies.

Recently one of the students at Harriton High , Rosemont Pennsylvania filed a class action lawsuite against the school alleging that Matsko (The Assistant Vice Principal) “informed minor plaintiff that the school district was of the belief that minor plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home and cited as evidence a photograph from the Webcam embedded in minor plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the school district.”

School teachers/board have absolute power over their student body, not in a physical or legal sense but the power and control is still there. They control the grades and they decide how the education is being imparted to students thus controlling the student’s future. In most cases this is not an issue but sometimes the school goes over-board. In Harriton High they decided that they had the right to watch over their student body even when they were not at school and used the Laptops that the school provided to enable them to do so.

Basically they used a remote-management product called LANrev, which enabled staff members to activate Webcams built into the MacBook laptops to take snapshots of the students without their knowledge. Officially the software was put in to track stolen laptops but as with all surveillance tools it was misused by the school staff.

On most laptops there is a light that comes on when the webcam is in use so that the users know when the webcam is activated. A lot of students noticed that the light came on intermittently and when they complained they were told that this was a ‘glitch’ and the webcams were not actually in use.

The best part is that the Laptop’s were firmware locked to prevent the students from verifying the official story. In-fact if a student jail-broke the laptop it was grounds for immediate suspension. This in itself makes me believe that the laptops were used to spy on the students. In addition it was mandatory for students to use the laptops provided by school for classes instead of using their personal laptops.

Stryde Hax: The Spy at Harriton High has a very nice technical writeup of how the school was spying on students and using the laptop’s webcams to take photos without the student’s knowledge.

Although the school has denied that they were spying on students not a lot of people believe them (including me). Oh I agree that it’s not an official policy but I am 100% sure that one or more staff members used the opportunity to spy on the students.

When I read the story the first thing that came to my mind was that the easiest way to prevent the school from watching would have been to put a piece of opaque tape on the webcam. That’s what I would have done…

Now that the story is out in public the FBI is investigating the case. This is a very scary scenario and if its not stopped immediately and the people responsible are not punished then it will set a dangerous precedent for other school’s and companies. What is to stop companies from using the laptops that they issue to spy on their users? Most users keep their laptops in their bedroom and I am sure they don’t want their company/office/school knowing what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom.

Source: SANS NewsBites Vol. 12 Num. 15.

– Suramya

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