April 16, 2010

Was this photo taken automatically by a school-supplied laptop without the knowledge of the sleeping teenager?


The caption:
"This photo, allegedly taken surreptitiously by the Lower Merion School District through a laptop web camera, shows Blake Robbins sleeping at home at 5 p.m. on Oct 26. (Photo provided by the Robbins family)"
There is a lawsuit based on what may very well have been a terrible invasion of privacy, but I've got to marvel at how the laptop caught such a well-framed and well-lit shot of the glossy-haired boy.
According to the latest filing by the Robbinses, officials first activated the tracking software on a school-issued Apple MacBook that Robbins took home on Oct. 20.

Hundreds of times in the next two weeks, the filing says, the program did its job each time it was turned on: A tiny camera atop the laptop snapped a photo, software inside copied the laptop screen image, and a locating device recorded the Internet address - something that could help district technicians pinpoint where the machine was.

The system was designed to take a new picture every 15 minutes until it was turned off....

Robbins and his parents say they first learned of the technology on Nov. 11, when an assistant Harriton principal confronted the teen with an image collected by the tracking software.

Robbins has said one image showed him with a handful of Mike and Ike candies - which the administrator thought were illegal pills.
Those overreaching school officials... exposed by their own over-aggressive control-freakishness... and the devious mind-tricks of Mike and Ike!

61 comments:

MadisonMan said...

but I've got to marvel at how the laptop caught such a well-framed and well-lit shot of the glossy-haired boy.

That was my reaction too, especially as it was supplied by the family suing the school district.

The real question would be: given the kid's bedroom layout, are we seeing the mirror image like a webcam would produce?

Salamandyr said...

Were the teenagers made aware that the laptop was taking pictures?

I'm surprised a zealous prosecutor hasn't attacked the school administration for surreptitiously collecting child porn.

Ron said...

Mike and Ike are a gateway candy for those who snort lines of PopRocks.

HDHouse said...

Just try skype sometime and don't disengage the session correctly.

The school systerm personnel should be sued within an inch of their lives. The question is when does private misconduct spill over to include the deeper pocket school system.

So lawyers? Who bears responsibility here - or who pays up first.

Joe said...

Mike and Ike are a gateway candy for those who snort lines of PopRocks.

That's for sissies...we real hardcore users mainline our Coke and Poprocks.....

The Drill SGT said...

HDHouse said...
The question is when does private misconduct spill over to include the deeper pocket school system.


If, as claimed, the Asst Principal used a photo to confront the kid about drugs, then the use of photo's went way beyond, some IT geeks using them for peeping at their little "soap opera". That makes it inherent to school operations and they've opened their deeper pockets. IMHO.

New "Hussein" Ham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Drill SGT said...

On the topic of the perfect photo, well out of 400, you might expect some better than others.

Kylos said...

I thought the same thing as well. It's possible it was cropped, though you'd think that that wouldn't be done when the picture is the story.

Big Mike said...

Collect enough images and there's bound to be some that are good.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"I've got to marvel at how the laptop caught such a well-framed and well-lit shot of the glossy-haired boy."

The photograph cold very well have been framed by the person who controlled the laptop. It could also have been happenstance among hundreds of automatically snapped photos.

Are you suggesting it's faked? Because I think that's the impression you're trying to leave without actually saying that.

Ann, Don't let your lack of technical ability or sophistication interfere with your ability to analyze facts.

Look, there's no question that school officials in this case installed the remote control software on these laptops and activated it for no apparent reason and then tried to use the resulting photos for disciplinary purposes. For you to suggest that the photo is faked, or otherwise suggest that the student is somehow framing the government is ludicrous.

"Robbins and his parents say they first learned of the technology on Nov. 11, when an assistant Harriton principal confronted the teen with an image collected by the tracking software."

Parents became aware only when the government began using the photographs they were collecting to punish students.

This is a horrible invasion of privacy by government officials.

Yes, Ann, ... you are the government. As are most school administrators and teachers.

And let's not forget that the pedophiles have switched from being Catholic priests to becoming school teachers.

Thousands of members of the National Education Association have been arrested, charged and convicted for raping our children in our schools. That union is nothing more than an organized kiddie rape squad.

When will the government officials who are members of the NEA stop raping our kids? When will the government stop spying on our kids?

Comrade X said...

don't worry house. the true culprits, the taxpayers, will be the ones punished.

we see it all the time in our city govt. where one govt. employee "accidentally" violates the civil rights of another govt. employee and the taxpayers get sued for it and no one gets fired ever.

Chip Ahoy said...

This incident makes me angry, very angry indeed. This forces me to annihilate your planetoid.

That school administrators defend by averring the program was used strictly to locate stolen laptops, presuming we're to buy the suggestion all these laptops were reported stolen is particularly offensive. Angry Monkey bursts through the door and screams, "LIES!"

SteveR said...

Looks cropped. The education industry, like any other, has its fair share of idiots, and in this case, ones who don't know they are violating someone's rights and probably a few laws.

Perhaps (probably) they did know, which is much worse.

JAL said...

Who knows whether it is cropped or who did it?

It would be easy enough to determine when it was taken if in fact it is off the harddrive of his little Mac loaner. (Doncha love the high quality that Apple provides?)

And the family hadn't come up with the $55 insurance fee? Well, suuuurrreee ... take pictures of the kid inside his home instead of phoning and dunning the parents.

I was (somewhat pleasantly)surprised at HD's response. I wonder how many of the teachers in the school would think it awful that the Bush administration authorized tapping suspected terrorist's phones or mining unidentified data for calling patterns.

Didn't ANYONE at the school have second thoughts about privacy violations? (I thought what went on in people's bedrooms was nobody's business.)

muddimo said...

Well, presumably the photo was obtained from the school since it was in their possession. That would answer the question quickly. Plus, the photo was likely cropped for distribution to the media.

The Drill SGT said...

Nice Icon JAL.

After a suitable period, say 20 minutes, I'm thinking about stealing it

Class factotum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Class factotum said...

the family hadn't come up with the $55 insurance fee?

I guess the idea of collecting the money before giving the computers to the kids didn't occur to them.

Richard Dolan said...

A policy like this couldn't have emerged from the EduCrats without some fairly high-level review in the bureaucracy. Amazing, really, at how often their judgment is so bad, and it's especially bad when the EduCrats are off on their own little war against drugs (which seems to have been the motivator here).

It reminded me a bit of Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007), the "Bong Hits for Jesus" case, where the SCOTUS rejected a constitutional challenge to school administrators' paternalistic overreaching their to ban speech deemed to promote drug use. Whether foolish and counterproductive policies by the EduCrats violate established legal rights (the SCOTUS concluded that they didn't in Morse), the fact remains that those policies were too dumb for words.

Of course, there are many things that can and should be done to discourage drug use by teenagers. But the education bureaucrats have a knack for doing really dumb things under that banner. This webcam approach is right up there on the dumbness scale.

As Glenn Reynolds would say, it just shows that our kids are in the very best of hands when they go to school ....

2yellowdogs said...

"we see it all the time in our city govt. where one govt. employee "accidentally" violates the civil rights of another govt. employee and the taxpayers get sued for it and no one gets fired ever."

Except in this case, Comrade, there was nothing accidental (or even "accidental") about it. This was a very deliberate, conscious decision made by the school's administration. It's such a blatant violation of privacy and so far over any accepted boundary lines, every single administrator who had a hand in it should be immediately terminated.

You're right, they'll be sued and the unfortunate victims of the judgement will be the taxpayers. Guess they need to do a better job of electing the board members who hire hire these incompetent fools (superintendant, principal, IT geek, whomever) in the first place.

Geoff Matthews said...

Forget about the invasion of privacy, why is the school giving kids Mac books? Those things are expensive?

If a kid needs to have a computer, use the lab or buy a netbook.

On a more serious note, if we didn't expect the government to provide these things, then they couldn't have abused the Mike & Ike addict's privacy.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"That school administrators defend by averring the program was used strictly to locate stolen laptops, presuming we're to buy the suggestion all these laptops were reported stolen is particularly offensive. Angry Monkey bursts through the door and screams, "LIES!"

Chip, you're just not keeping up with current events, dude.

The family's lawyers have obtained the school districts emails in which they laugh about all the images they're collecting and liken the "movie" they are making to a "a little Lower Merion School District soap opera."

The adminstrator of the program replied, in an email: "I know, I love it."

There is a lot of evidence that school officials new precisely that they were illegally spying on students. They were "loving" the window they had on their private world.

The government here is guilty of illegal wiretapping.

And Chip, you really should learn to be better informed than you appear to be.

Brian Day said...

Does anyone know if MacBooks have the ability to pan and zoom?
The picture has to be cropped. My Acer laptop from which I am posting this has a built-in webcam and it does not pan and zoom. My picture/icon was taken by the webcam from arms length and my head takes up less than half of the frame. If the boy is sleeping on a bed and the laptop is on a desk, I think the distance has to be four feet minimum. His head would be lost in the background.
Yeah, it's cropped.

Ann Althouse said...

"Well, presumably the photo was obtained from the school since it was in their possession."

How do you know that? The photo was obtained from the plaintiffs according to the caption.

Balfegor said...

If the boy is sleeping on a bed and the laptop is on a desk, I think the distance has to be four feet minimum.

Why would the laptop be on a desk? The whole point of a laptop is you can use it anywhere and I use mine mostly on the bed(or the couch or the kitchen counter, etc. etc.) If I am going to take a nap, I may put it on the bed or a bedside table and watch something for a while as I drift off. The picture doesn't strike me as at all odd, if the boy's using the laptop the way I use mine.

Aridog said...

How to deal with invasive web cams on school furnished laptops? Nail Polish? Duct Tape smidgen?
No problem.

And, yeah, that's rather nice lighting and framing for a candid by laptop. No matter: Nail Polish or Duct tape. All better.

former law student said...

How old is the kid?

His room is likely a pigsty, and the picture cropped to eliminate the chaos. Or it was cropped for other privacy reasons. Else as was suggested, this was the "best" picture -- captured the argument the best -- of the 400.

Aridog said...

Just wondering...since it is allegedly so automated...wht would mummsie and daddykins say & do if it photographed the teenage kidlet wanking away in testosterone bliss?

Something about all this just seems so, so..."1984."

Balfegor said...

Just wondering...since it is allegedly so automated...wht would mummsie and daddykins say & do if it photographed the teenage kidlet wanking away in testosterone bliss?

Wouldn't that be child pornography? If there's stuff like that on the record, the school administrators ought to be in much, much bigger trouble than they are right now.

Methadras said...

There is no Blue Pill in that menagerie of lies.

Kylos said...

Aridog, I'm surprised Mike & Ikes was the extent of the "bad behavior" caught on camera.

New Hussein, Brian Day, the Macbooks have fixed cameras. No panning and zooming possible. That's why everyone is thinking it was cropped.

Kylos said...

Additionally, the picture has at least been resized. Macbooks output 640x480 pixel images, but the picture with the article is 400x300. The noise in the darker areas seems more pronounced than on similar snaps taken by my Apple laptop, indicating cropping as well. Ok, that's enough of armchair photo forensics expert from me for the day.

Brian Day said...

@ Balfegor. Good point. But how close do you keep the laptop when you are lying in bed? I was just now playing with the webcam to reproduce the framing of the picture in question. The camera was 11 inches away to get my head to fill the frame. (I know that the distance will vary by computer, but the distance I used should be close.)

c3 said...

Ham;
Today's not you're day. I'd say take the day off, go for a walk, have a leisurely lunch, maybe take in a ball game and then come back at it tomorrow.

David said...

Salamandyr said...
"Were the teenagers made aware that the laptop was taking pictures?"

Possibly he figured it out on his own. In addition to the sleeping boy shot, I question the Mikes and Ikes. Kid asks himself "How do I get these Bozos to think I'm taking (dealing) drugs? They will expose their plot for sure."

It's not all that far fetched.

For a lot of kids the first reaction is going to be "How can I prank them."

Then comes "Can I sue them?" That will take care of the college costs.

Big Mike said...

Quite right, Professor Althouse, the photo could easily have been recovered from the hard drive and doesn't have to have been obtained from the school.

If the shot was cropped, so what? I suppose that a shyster lawyer would try to make something out of the picture being cropped, but I can't imagine a jury caring very much. Photoshopped or otherwise enhanced is different, of course.

Earlier stories about this lawsuit quoted other students -- not Blake Robbins -- stating that the school district refused to let them install additional software, even software needed for a class, or disable the camera.

I think Lower Merion school officials are in deep trouble. As they deserve to be.

Seven Machos said...

There was a really, really bad Tom Berenger and Sharon Stone movie predicting this sort of thing in 1993.



Also, yeah. This school looks like such a complete bunch of fascist tools that it's hard to believe this really happened. The fact that it all got exposed over Mike and Ike's is almost beyond believable.

Balfegor said...

@ Balfegor. Good point. But how close do you keep the laptop when you are lying in bed?

Extremely close, usually. Maybe two feet away or less -- my habit is to lie prone with my head on a pillow and watch videos sideways (I am extremely lazy). Of course, once I actually fall asleep, my head may then move closer to or further from the camera.

Tibore said...

Unsolicited photography with the laptop's camera. Shades of Cryptonomicon there.

Everyone in Epiphyte Corp. has a laptop with a tiny built-in video camera, so that they can do long-distance videoconferencing. Avi insisted on it. The camera is almost invisible: just an orifice a couple of millimeters across, mounted in the top center of the frame that surrounds the screen. It doesn't have a lens as such - it's a camera in the oldest sense, a camera obscura. One call contains the pinhole and the opposite wall is a silicon retina.

... Then he writes a little program called Mugshot that will take a snap-shot from the pinhole camera every five seconds or so, and compare it to the previous snapshot, and, if the difference is large enough, save it to a file. An encrypted file with a meaningless, random name. Mugshot opens no windows and produces no output of it's own..."

(pg. 329, Cryptonimicon, Neal Stephenson)

Neal Stephenson's ahead of his time. The only thing I'm surprised at is that it took 11 years for something to surface in the real world mirroring what he invented for his 1999 work of fiction.

Shanna said...

These idiots at the school deserve to go down...if only for being so dumb as to blow their whole spying campaign wide open because they thought Mike & Ike's were illegal pills. Do they think illegal pills come in giant size and are colored neon?

AJ Lynch said...

This could not happen is a run of the mill school district. This one, though, is in a high income area and spends almost $29,000 per student per year.

HDHouse said...

I can see the civil action as everyone seems to.

Oh wise ones here, is there a potential for criminal prosecution? The kid probably got undressed once while on camera and is this not like the occasional landlord who plants a camera in a bedroom or shower of one of his renters?

Oso Negro said...

If a school administrator is caught snooping on my daughter in such a manner, the response will be personal and savage. Frightful savagery is appropriate in some cases and would serve as a marvelous deterrent for other school officials.

Oso Negro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Isha said...

Are there any details out about how this monitoring system worked?

Was this application saving images to the laptops hard-drive so it could send them whenever it detected a working network connection? I can see a kid being smart enough to snoop around in the system. And either notice this type of activity like the network connections, the additional files, decreasing HD space, increased system activity, strange running processes.

Or hell, even notice the light of the camera turning on or off - not sure if this model has that feature, some do. Once he figured it out what's left is to prove it, bait it and then when "confronted" blow the whole thing open.

Thing is, if that's how it went down, I'm surprised that neither he or his family are mentioning it.

jaed said...

If there are pictures of kids undressing then we're looking at potential criminal charges, yes. Manufacturing child pornography, possession of child pornography, possibly conspiracy to distribute.

Maybe. Depending on how the prosecutor feels about the whole thing. But the possibility is there, oh yes.

tim maguire said...

Salamandyr (8:43 AM), that was my first thought--catch some kid jerking off and the whole school administration has to register as sex offenders.

That would be funny.

former law student said...

Maybe a small angle of view explains why the "Mike and Ike" box was not detected.

Calypso Facto said...

Oh, you like Mike & Ikes?

Sorry I can't video edit, but referenced at 1:14 or so...

Pogo said...

If school superintendents were swapped with the managers of the local Hank's Hardware store, we'd all be better off.

Well, all except the hardware stores.

Penny said...

There's always two sides to the story, and unfortunately, there is a gag order preventing the school from responding without permission from the kid's attorney.

Some parents have formed groups trying to find out how that order might be lifted, and also to discuss whether they want to be involved in a class action suit which results in shared legal expenses and the Blake's attorney representing them.

It has been reported that the kid's family has filed a spate of lawsuits recently, possibly stemming from accrued personal debt. The family maintains this has no bearing on the case.

AJ Lynch said...

Penny:

The local news reported the Robbins family owed an electric bill for like $30,000! I was shocked [no pun intended] - I figured the electric company would have shut off your service way before the bill reached $30,000.

Pogo said...

I say the photo is phony because the teenager isn't drooling.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

It's a "school-issued Apple MacBook"!?!

Here's a hard lesson: If you take the king's coin, you sing the king's song.

Duscany said...

It's a balloon-boy photo--too good to be true. I'm not saying the school didn't take surreptitious photos of its students. But I doubt this is one of them.

clarenancy said...

Having seen my son fall asleep after engaging his online buddies late at night, I find this photo quite accurate. The boy falls asleep facing the laptop camera. Naturally the camera is, likewise, facing him.

Calypso Facto said...

I don't mind a little skepticism, but so for the facts are coming out on the side of the kid:

Not only that, but the discovery process appears to have uncovered “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots” of “numerous other students in their homes, many of which [sic] never reported their laptops lost or missing.” Also obtained by the plaintiffs were e-mails between school IT personnel, in which one supposedly describes webcam images as “a little LMSD soap opera,” to which another replies “I know, I love it!”

If the case, I'd rather see some administrators and staff with poor judgment lose their jobs than millions of taxpayer dollars go to appease this family for having their sleeping kid photographed...

Nora said...

My kid takes laptop and cell phone to bed and he has reading light that he frequently forgets to swich off when he falls asleep. Also, you can lighten even very dark photos using image manipulating software.

former law student said...

Here's a hard lesson: If you take the king's coin, you sing the king's song.

The lesson comes from the Aeneid: Beware of Greeks (public school administrators) bearing gifts. In wikip's words:

the Greeks built a huge wooden horse and hid a select force of 30 men inside. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the Horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the Horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of night. The Greek army entered and destroyed the city of Troy,

Unable to resist the offered MacBooks, the students brought them into their homes, unaware that the laptops would breach their families' privacy.

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