Day 612: Big Brother Wants You To Come To The Principal’s Office

originally published September 3, 2013

On the morning of November 11, 2009, Blake Robbins, a high school sophomore at Harriton High in the suburbs of Philadelphia, was called in to the vice-principal’s office. This is never something good – no one gets called in to the vice-principal’s office for a complimentary brownie or to play a quick game of Uno. No, Blake probably knew he was in trouble for something.

What he didn’t expect was for vice-principal Lindy Matsko to show him a photograph of Blake in his own bedroom, violating the school’s ethical code on drug use during off-school hours.

Okay, Blake shouldn’t have been popping back illegal narcotics, but he was more awestruck by the fact that the photo existed to begin with. He was in his bedroom. There had been no adults in there with him, and certainly no one snapping a Bond-esque lapel-button camera shot to rat him out. No, it was Blake’s laptop that finked on him, specifically the webcam – the one that the school had set up for just this purpose.

Yes, this actually happened.

At the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, every high school student in the Lower Marion School District in Pennsylvania was issued an Apple MacBook to use throughout the year. With some school districts lacking the funds to buy textbooks or offer a half-decent drama and music program to give their kids a real education, this was a pretty awesome statement of the region’s relative affluence.

There were rules, of course. No online pornography, no using it for commercial purposes, no installing games, and no violating the school’s policies on bullying, threatening, or just generally being an asshole. I’m sure there wasn’t a student who cared – they were getting a free laptop to use for school as well as a bevy of other non-school-related activities. What the school board neglected to tell the students, parents, or anyone else was that each laptop came bundled with a little software package known as TheftTrack.

TheftTrack was great if the laptop was stolen. It could fire up on command and transmit to the school board where the laptop was located, and even activate the webcam to snap a few photos of the perpetrator. Also, it could retrieve that information if the laptop wasn’t stolen. The school could do it just because.

Students couldn’t use the laptops’ built-in cameras. To them it simply appeared as though webchat was something the school didn’t want done on their machines, and that was that. No big deal. But what they didn’t know was that the school officials could activate the cameras whenever they wanted, and they could even snap a screenshot and show the school what their kids were looking at. There was no such thing as online privacy with the school’s computer, but there was also no such thing as in-your-bedroom privacy.

Just imagine, you’re a high school student in the privacy of your own bedroom. Sure, your laptop won’t get you on to, but there’s nothing to stop you from punching in ‘Scarlett Johansson’ into a Google image search. Go ahead, try it. Leave Safesearch on and see what comes up. Nothing obscene, but any of those shots would be sufficient to inspire a teenage boy to slap the ol’ flesh-pickle around a little. Now imagine the school’s principal decided that would be a good random moment to snap a picture.

The software sent its screenshots and cam-shots surreptitiously, deleting any trace of the act from the laptop’s memory. Keep in mind, nowhere in any of the paperwork signed by every parent and student in the district was any of this software mentioned. In fact, they went out of their way to ensure TheftTrack was kept secret. Even when it was brought to their attention, the software was swept under the proverbial rug.

In August of 2008, a student intern with Harriton High’s IT department sent a note to Virginia DiMedio, the district’s director of technology, voicing concern over the set-up. He felt that parents should be informed of this software… DiMedio disagreed. She replied that there was no way the school would use this stuff to spy on kids in their homes, that it would only be used to monitor stolen equipment. “Take a breath and relax,” she told him. A pair of student council members also approached principal Steven Kline with their worries. Some students had been concerned that their webcam lights had flickered briefly, and that someone might be remotely using it. No action was taken.

Over the course of fifteen days in October, 2009, 429 images – webcam and screenshot – were transmitted from Blake Robbins’ computer to the school. Actually, that’s a low estimate as one week’s worth of images was allegedly ‘lost’; 429 is what was kept. One photo that circulated widely in the wake of this scandal was this shot of Blake sleeping in his bed.

There were also shots of Blake and his friends, Blake’s father, and Blake naked from the waist up after getting out of the shower. When the lawsuit was filed against the school district, rather than settle the matter and resolve it quickly and quietly, the district decided to fight it. Yes, they felt they had constitutional grounds for snapping random photos that very possibly could include underage genitalia.

As the case became a national media explosion, Blake’s lawyer appeared on MSNBC and pointed out that even the image that had sparked the school to break its silence on TheftTrack and reveal their nefarious doings, the one that had resulted in Blake getting hauled in for disciplinary action, was merely a shot of Blake chowing down on some Mike & Ike candies in front of his computer.

A columnist from the Philadelphia Inquirer had a look at the supposedly incriminating photo and decided that yes, it did appear as though the only buzz the kid was after in the first place was a momentary sugar rush.

In the end, a forensic study revealed that the school had snapped at least 66,503 screenshots and webcam-shots, not counting the unknown number of lost images, from kids’ laptops. Another lawsuit was filed on behalf of another student in the district, and ultimately the school board had to fork out $610,000 in settlements for their poor judgment. Fortunately, policies have been changed, and even TheftTrack has been hauled to the dump of the discontinued.

But just in case, if you happen to have a free computer from your work or school, maybe slapping a little swab of electrical tape over the webcam might not be a bad plan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s