Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Big Brother Webcam School

If you read the beginning of this story and nothing else, you would think those 56,000 pictures that the Lower Merion School District took of its (mostly) underage students were of an appropriate nature, just read the bottom third of the article.

Pa. district took 56,000 images on student laptops

PHILADELPHIA – A suburban school district secretly captured at least 56,000 webcam photographs and screen shots from laptops issued to high school students, its lawyer acknowledged Monday.

"It's clear there were students who were likely captured in their homes," said lawyer Henry Hockeimer, who represents the Lower Merion School District.

None of the images, captured by a tracking program to find missing computers, appeared to be salacious or inappropriate, he said. The district said it remotely activated the tracking software to find 80 missing laptops in the past two years.

The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported Monday on the large number of images recovered from school servers by forensic computer experts, who were hired after student Blake Robbins filed suit over the tracking practice.

Robbins still doesn't know why the district deployed the software tracking program on his computer, as he had not reported it lost or stolen, his lawyer said.

The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into possible wiretap violations by the district, and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, has introduced a bill to include webcam surveillance under the federal wiretap statute.

The district photographed Robbins 400 times during a 15-day period last fall, sometimes as he slept in bed or was half-dressed, according to his lawyer, Mark Haltzman. Other times, the district captured screen shots of instant messages or video chats the Harriton High School sophomore had with friends, he said.

"Not only was Blake Robbins being spied upon, but every one of the people he was IM chatting with were spied upon," said Haltzman, whose lawsuit alleges wiretap and privacy violations. "They captured pictures of people that have nothing to do with Harriton. It could be his cousin from Connecticut."

About 38,000 of the images were taken over several months from six computers the school said were stolen from a locker room.

The tracking program took images every 15 minutes, usually capturing the webcam photo of the user and a screen shot at the same time. The program was sometimes turned on for weeks or months at a time, Hockeimer said.

"There were no written policies or procedures governing the circumstances surrounding activating the program and the circumstances regarding turning off the activations," Hockeimer said.

Robbins was one of about 20 students who had not paid the $55 insurance fee required to take the laptops home but was the only one tracked, Haltzman said.
The depositions taken to date have provided contradictory testimony about the reasons for tracking Robbins' laptop. One of the two people authorized to activate the program, technology coordinator Carol Cafiero, invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions at the deposition, Haltzman said.

About 10 school officials had the right to request an activation, Hockeimer disclosed Monday.

The tracking program helped police identify a suspect not affiliated with the school in the locker room theft, Hockeimer said. The affluent Montgomery County district distributes the Macintosh notebook computers to all 2,300 students at its two high schools, Hockeimer said.

As part of the lawsuit, a federal judge this week is set to begin a confidential process of showing parents the images that were captured of their children.

The school district expects to release a written report on an internal investigation in the next few weeks, Hockeimer said. School board President David Ebby has pledged the report will contain "all the facts — good and bad."

In other words, according to the Lower Merion School District, taking pictures of half naked teens is not at all "salacious or inappropriate." If this school district dug through the kids' mail boxes at home, the IT department and superintendent would be fitted with orange jumpsuits and put away in prison for quite a few years. But they get to remotely activate web cams on their computers in their homes, take over 56,000 pictures, including at least one of them in a state of undress, and this somehow is only a civil matter? If our prosecutors are going to turn sexting 16 year olds into sex offenders, why not the administrators of the Lower Merion School District?

I have little doubt the student who sued the district is not the only one they took pictures of in the buff (depending on how one judges in the buff). I think there is a good argument to be made that the school board president, the technology coordinator, as well as those who installed the software and took the pictures should all be subject to child porn charges, if indeed there were genuinely nude pictures (although I am not sure of being "half dressed" as a teenage male would suffice). What better way to teach people in positions of power in our government the value of accountability than to hold them to the same laws they impose on everyone else?

Of course, none of this going to stop our friends at the NSA from cataloging all of our phone calls, and monitoring our internet activity, emails, and IMs. That is one form of big government no one seems to care about--the people in this school district, the teabaggers (least of all), or the screamers on Fox 'news.' Here is the side of the state you will not be seeing covered on your mainstream news station.

Security Watch: Beware the NSA’s Geek-Spy Complex
By Noah Shachtman

Early this year, the big brains at Google admitted that they had been outsmarted. Along with 33 other companies, the search giant had been the victim of a major hack — an infiltration of international computer networks that even Google couldn’t do a thing about. So the company has reportedly turned to the only place on Earth with a deeper team of geeks than the Googleplex: the National Security Agency.
Most of us know the NSA as the supersecret spook shop that allegedly slurped up our email and phone calls after the September 11 attacks. But NSA headquarters — the “Puzzle Palace” — in Fort Meade, Maryland, is actually home to two different agencies under one roof. There’s the signals-intelligence directorate, the Big Brothers who, it is said, can tap into any electronic communication. And there’s the information-assurance directorate, the cybersecurity nerds who make sure our government’s computers and telecommunications systems are hacker- and eavesdropper-free. In other words, there’s a locked-down spy division and a relatively open geek division. The problem is, their goals are often in opposition. One team wants to exploit software holes; the other wants to repair them. This has created a conflict — especially when it comes to working with outsiders in need of the NSA’s assistance. Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple solution: We should break up the NSA.
Here’s the problem: Say you’re a Google customer — and who isn’t, really? You want to know that Google is safeguarding your data and your privacy. Trouble is, when Google calls the NSA, everyone watching sees it as a package deal. The company wants geeks, but it runs the risk of getting spies, too. The NSA’s wiretapping directorate has a vested interest in keeping company information at least slightly open in case they need to take a look someday — the NSA is, after all, the agency that tapped AT&T switching stations (OK, OK, allegedly). So if Google appeals to the NSA, it could poison its relationship with its customers (and compromise your personal information, to boot). The NSA and Google can pinky-swear that they’ll never ever put a back door in Gmail, but intelligence agencies aren’t known for keeping their promises.
A broken-out bureau — call it the Cyber Security Agency, or CSA — that didn’t include the spooks would obviate this conflict. “A separate information-assurance agency,” says Michael Tanji, a 21-year veteran of intelligence services, including the NSA, “will have a greater level of acceptance across the government and the private sector.”
That acceptance is vital — because the dotcom and dotgov universes are already having to rely on the NSA, no matter what the drawbacks are. The Defense Department turned to the director of the NSA to head its new Cyber Command. The Department of Homeland Security routinely turns to the NSA for cybersecurity help. Technically, rendering this aid isn’t the NSA’s job, says Richard Bejtlich, a former Air Force cybersecurity officer now with General Electric. “But when you’re in trouble, you go to the guys who actually have a clue.”
An independent CSA would be trusted more widely than Fort Meade, improving collaboration among cybersecurity geniuses. It was private researchers and academics who led the effort to corral the ultrasophisticated Conficker worm. And the National Institute of Standards and Technology worked on federal desktop security. A well-run, independent CSA would be able to coordinate better with these outside entities.
The idea of splitting up the NSA’s geeks and spies has come up before. It’s one of the reasons that the NSA’s directorates have separate budgets and separate congressional oversight. But a previous push to break them up was dismissed — because back when mail was paper and banking was done with a teller, the lines between codebreaking and codemaking were fuzzy and the benefits of a trusted network protector were less clear. But that was then. Today, as unsafe as electronic information is in a world of hackers and Internet worms, it’s even more unsafe locked inside the Puzzle Palace.
Contributing editor Noah Shachtman (wired.com/dangerroom) writes about commentator Andrew Breitbart in this issue.

So, Google is infested with NSA spies. This makes a mockery of Google's feigned shock and outrage at the Chinese government for allegedly hacking into their network. Not only does Google allow the NSA to hack into its system, and collect our data without our knowledge (the Fourth Amendment be damned), which it keeps purposely open just enough for our government to infiltrate the company's ranks, but undermines the same principles of openness, freedom of expression, and non-interference from outside parties that it conveniently uses to paternalistically lecture states who do not fit into Google's future business plan.

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