School webcams: “It was like having a Peeping Tom”

My initial doubts that a school system would use the webcams in its school-issued computers to spy on kids may have been optimistic in light of the increasing detail coming out from the Lower Merion School District. The upscale suburban Philadelphia system has admitted to activating the webcams 42 times in the past 14 months, but insists it did so only to find missing laptops given to students.  But the charge of spying by at least one family has led the FBI to start its own investigation.

This snippet is from the CBS Early Show which snagged an interview with the Robbins, the family suing the school system for invasion of privacy over what it maintains was unlawful spying.  (I do have to say that the system can’t be happy to hear that students take the pricey computers into the bathroom to listen to music while they shower.)

According to the the interview:

Blake Robbins, the teen at the center of the controversy, told Hill it all began when Harriton High School administrators falsely accused him of selling drugs and taking pills; then said they had webcam images to prove it.

Blake says the pictures are of him eating candies.

Blake’s mother, Holly Robbins, says she “was panicked” when she learned what was going on. “I thought this was just horrifying, that somebody could, especially the school, come into my home and spy on my son, and my daughter – she’s 18 years old. And it was scary. It was like having a Peeping Tom.”

Blake’s sister, Paige Robbins, told Hill she “can say that on behalf of all of my girlfriends at Harriton, we were very scared, because we don’t check to see if the lid is closed when we’re changing. We take them in the bathroom when we’re in the shower to listen to music. So, we’re all petrified. We don’t know who’s on the other end watching us do whatever.”

I think we have to amend the standard safety talk we give our children:. Don’t take candy from strangers, a pen from airport manager Ben DeCosta or a laptop  from Pennsylvania school officials.

31 comments Add your comment

Chief Wiggum

February 23rd, 2010
10:19 am

It’s creepy. When they activate the webcam to find “missing laptops”, do they have documentation that the laptop is really missing? I seriously doubt it.

I am guessing there is some of the typical legal-ese in the contracts the kids signed, that the school system can turn the webcams on whenever they want, to cover their behinds in this. It’s sort of like the auto insurance companies that will lower your rate if you agree to let them install a GPS-based monitor, to see where you go, how often you drive, and how fast you drive. All likely legal, with the proper disclosures and agreements, but more of the Big Brother culture we were warned about in a novel written about 62 years ago.

I should be working

February 23rd, 2010
10:27 am

How does activating a webcam tell you where the computer you expect to see a street adress? The persons responsible should be criminally prosecuted.


February 23rd, 2010
10:30 am

Chief, according to reports, there wasn’t any “legalese” — nobody every signed anything giving permission, not even in hidden fine print. I think this is a case of computer system administrators ignoring law and ethics. Computer geeks tend to feel that if they have THE POWER to do something on a technical level, they don’t have to worry about whether it’s legal or right. Most commonly, this shows up as the geek wanting to be judge, jury, and executioner when there’s a computer secuirty problem. This is the first time I’ve heard of them being dumb enough to spy on users in their bedrooms.


February 23rd, 2010
10:35 am

Simple solution: duct tape over the camera lens. Done right, it won’t damage the lens, and will guarantee privacy. Simply take it off before returning the laptop.


February 23rd, 2010
10:43 am

Schools are increasingly weilding their power in the private lives of students, whetherit be on behalf of “safety” ,”benefit to the community” looking at teachers photos on Facebook or whatever. Schools should have no power over their students or teachers personal lives ,period!


February 23rd, 2010
10:43 am

I am not sure about other PC’s, but the Dell’s I order for my clients/employees all have lo-jac ordered and activated on them. Essentially, a web cam is a cop out. I hope this school district looses in court. They have no right or reason to watch kids on webcams.


February 23rd, 2010
10:47 am

This is absurd! I hope this family sues and wins so big it hurts the school system beyond measure. I hope more familys with these “educational gifts” sue as well.


February 23rd, 2010
11:02 am

Hey…I like this protest video….they really watch your kids….


February 23rd, 2010
11:14 am

If someone stole your computer, you would want to be able to identify that person, which is the reason why the web cam takes the pictures. With PC-Trak™ from GadgetTrak®: Advanced Anti-Theft For Windows (one type of software), if you report your computer stolen, the company activates the anti-theft protection so the next time you computer is turned on, it will automatically capture a picture of the images in front of the camera.

If a student did not return the computer at the end of the school year claiming that it was stolen, and if the web cam takes a picture of the student at a later date because of the software – that student can be charged with theft of property.

However, this was an abuse of authority because the computer was not reported stolen which is the only time the software should be used.


February 23rd, 2010
11:21 am

where there is no actual wording about privacy in the founding documents, it is implied through the 4th amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. It seems these admins thought they could just check up on students whenever they had a whim. If the students lose this case, that will open the door to any business, school, or even your cell phone provider to be able to activate the cam and look around.

Teacher, Too

February 23rd, 2010
11:23 am

I don’t agree that anyone should be spying on the kids and/or their families, but then, I suppose if the students were using the laptops only for school work, then there probably shouldn’t be a problem. Wouldn’t the webcam only see the student working on his/her computer?

I don’t know the intricacies of webcams. If I have one on my school issued laptop, no one would see anything exciting because I don’t take it home. I don’t wish to be responsible for it in the event that something happens (it gets stolen, it gets dropped, etc…)

Having said this, I don’t think schools should issue laptops to students. Students should have access to laptops at school, and maybe they should be allowed to check out a laptop if they need to work on a project.

Out of curiousity, do these students get internet cards to use?

Mid Ga Retiree

February 23rd, 2010
11:31 am

Sometimes government and business panic when caught with their pants down (figuratively speaking, of course), and babble and stutter while trying to excuse just plain stupid acts or behavior. In their often times futile efforts to cover up mistakes they just dig themselves deeper. I sure do wish we could grow a new generation of leaders who, when their companies or agencies are caught screwing up, have the intestinal fortitude to stand up immediately, say so, then rectify the mistakes. It would sure go a long way towards actually regaining trust and getting forgiveness.


February 23rd, 2010
12:00 pm

its like any person, pass the buck. The policticans blame the teachers; seems to me that a lot of school admins are causing the problems; and in GA Kathy Cox is leading the charge for blaming everyone but her self for the one track to graduation and the new math curriculum.


February 23rd, 2010
12:20 pm

creepy and downright scary!

what's right for kids???

February 23rd, 2010
12:28 pm

Why would anyone want to know what these kids are doing after school, anyway? eeewwww.

Jack Bear

February 23rd, 2010
12:39 pm

Unless the laptop was truly stolen. The webcam should not have been activated. Nor for that matter any microphone feature (listening device). This has crossed the line into the fourth amendment. Who is to say that the webcam and microphone feature are not being accessed outside normal protocol? There are other ways to monitor for a stolen computer. Even could prevent the computer from working remotely. I feel that the system admin will be the scape goat for this unless he/she had an email approving such activities.


February 23rd, 2010
1:54 pm

I can see from these various comments that many of the posters do not realize this incident is an anticipated outcome in the progression from a free society to a surveillance society.

In a surveillance society, there is no expectation of privacy, even on one’s own property, as authorities and the state do not have an expectation of citizen innocence, only guilt.

The ease by which the school administrators approved this behavior shows we are at a crucial moment for the future of privacy and freedom, in danger of tipping into a genuine surveillance society completely alien to American values.

Every singe one of you who ever utters the disreputable phrase “I’ve got nothing to hide.” is sleepwalking into a dark future where our every move, our every transaction, our every communication is recorded, compiled, and stored away, ready to be examined and used against us by the authorities whenever they desire.

DeKalb Conservative

February 23rd, 2010
2:01 pm

Illegal wiretap perhaps?

Sarah H

February 23rd, 2010
2:09 pm

And how do we know that the school is really looking at the kids through the web-cam? Just because the kid says so, doesn’t make it so.


February 23rd, 2010
3:10 pm

@Sarah H
The school already admitted they have activated the webcams previously so obviously that means the school has been looking at someone. When the asst principal called the student into the office it WASN’T regarding a STOLEN laptop. The school said they observed the student doing something inappropiate in his own home and in his own room. So in this case what the kid says is actually the truth. If they were looking in your home without your knowledge and consent how would you feel?

Officials of the Lower Merion School District, outside Philadelphia, acknowledged Friday that they remotely activated webcams 42 times in the past 14 months, but only to find missing laptops given to students. They insist they never did so to spy on students, as the family of 16-year-old Blake Robbins claimed in the federal lawsuit.


February 23rd, 2010
3:43 pm

Why the hell are you taking a school laptop in the bathroom while showering? That in itself should warrant further education for that young lady.

It is creepy as hell though that they can remotely turn on the webcam.

no mas

February 23rd, 2010
4:07 pm

I listened to an interview with Blake Robbins on a Phila. radio station, and he said the laptops had a GPS app, and questioned why the school didn’t use the GPS to locate “lost” computers. This was backed up by other callers who were familiar with the Lower Merion school system. Makes me question the schools’ reasoning even more.


February 23rd, 2010
4:14 pm

As an IT Manager I can undoubtedly say that the students agree to some sort of “user agreement” by the very act of using that school owned computer (no matter where that computer may be at any current point in time). It could be something as simple as a paragraph in their student handbooks or something as overt as a pop-up reminding them every time they log on. Key to every agreement that I’ve seen, written, or passed on is a line that states “your activities may be monitored or recorded at any time while on this computer system” — or something to that effect, thereby covering the school system. Now if the IT tech taking the pictures did not do so in accordance with his departments policies that would open him up to action from both the school and the families of those affected. Any evidence of nefarious activity is, for all intents and purposes, void should it be collected outside of stated policies.

That’s the price of using a computer that isn’t yours. You agree to it, You bring it into your home, You have no right to complain when it bites you in the posterior. If you don’t like it, don’t use that machine ESPECIALLY outside of the scope of the institution that issued it.


February 23rd, 2010
4:50 pm

One can purchase a lojack for computers in case of theft. Didn’t the school invest in lojack or a similar set up?


February 23rd, 2010
5:35 pm

@BBMC – I suspect, though I may be wrong, that “user agreements” that minors agree to without parental consent are not legal documents suitable for admission to court.


February 23rd, 2010
5:47 pm

Like those who think it is okay for the government to monitor to phone conversations, many will argue that if the students were using their computers correctly, they wouldn’t be investigated.

Wounded Warrior

February 23rd, 2010
6:32 pm

don’t take a smoke from marion berry..that is crack.


February 23rd, 2010
9:12 pm

Why would the school has such authority over who to spy on or not and why not have that power to the parents or the owner of the laptops instead? My school recommended bak2u software to us where the owner monitors it themselves instead of leaving the entire control to the school.

The authorities should come down hard on the school administrators that abuse such control. What were they spying on, the students, parents or just pure sick mind at work? Either way, cramp it down removing all these people in power. Let the it empowered to the owner themselves.

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4th ammendment fan

February 24th, 2010
1:56 pm

Hey, BBMC “As an IT Manager I can undoubtedly say …” you have got to be kidding right? You cannot have someone sign away the constitution or the Bill of Rights. Maybe you should take your IT degree and apply to law school or at least a personal privacy seminar

This may be one of the creepiest things I have heard of in a long time. Regardless of what this kid was or was not doing you cannot turn on a remote camera in a minor’s bedroom like this.

Good luck to all these teachers and district employees getting jobs when they will now have to register as sex offenders for transmitting explicit Photos of minors over the Internet


February 26th, 2010
12:03 am

Personally, sounds like somebody who is a busy-body, trouble maker, or worse, a pedophile. If she had been caught taking a photo in the actual home bedroom window of this boy, she would be prosecuted as a peeping tom, and probably prosecuted for other “sexual” charges of some type. She is WEIRD. Even if she uses the excuse that she didn’t take the webcam photo, her concern was more about what the boy was doing, not WHO took the photo and WHY and the direct intrusion and peeping tom atmosphere it brings up. Why didn’t she immediately call law enforcement on the person who GAVE her the photo, if that is her excuse, out of concern OTHER more “revealing” photos were taken by this “mysterious other person” and the personal intrusion done? In short, I don’t believe her story that she wasn’t responsible in some manner for the production of the webcam photos, either by taking them herself or having someone else do it for her. Just because she told someone else to take them and give them to her doesn’t relieve her of her “weirdness”. Has she nothing better to do than try to find student misbehavior OFF campus ? Isn’t there enough to keep her busy on campus? If not,then her services obviously aren’t needed. And frankly, given her lack of common sense at minimum, and her willingness to perpetuate such a creepy crime at worse, makes me wonder how the heck she ever got to the position she is in ? OH, wait.. maybe she has had more history with webcam photo taking than anyone knows…… In the wrong hands, many photos can go a long way to getting what a person wants. Who knows whose computer she has invaded? The principal’s? The superintendent? Teachers? School board officials? No one has asked that question….. what other computers, besides the ones the students took home, have been “spycammed”. Be interesting to know if the FBI finds information of more than students computers being violated… And what they found. This could be better than Peyton Place. Because whatever they saw students doing (which sounds like pedophiles at work), much more probably got caught on the webcams of those other computers……. Good things that the FBI is GOOD at capturing DELETED files. Because I would feel confident in betting money that once this starting hitting the fan, someone else started hitting the DELETE button on their computer. Too bad because that will make them look even more guilty, because “whoever” thought they were smarter than the FBI… I’ll bet money MORE webcam photos will come to light once the FBI IT gets hold of the computers…. INTERESTING>>>>>>>