Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Who's Your Daddy?

An incident in Pennsylvania is receiving the scrutiny of the FBI and with good reason. The incident is being called WebCamGate by the mass media. Education Week summarizes the details in an article post by By Dan Hardy, Derrick Nunnally, and John Shiffman of the Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT).
Blake Robbins, 15, said in the suit that an assistant principal confronted him last November with a photo from the laptop—supposedly evidence he was involved in "improper behavior" in his Penn Valley house.

The teenager has said that he was holding Mike & Ike candy in his hand, and that the assistant principal thought they might be drugs.

The system was triggered 42 times this school year, in an attempt to track lost or missing computers, school officials say.

District spokesman Douglas Young yesterday repeated that the security program was developed to help recover lost or stolen laptops, and added: "This included tracking loaner laptops that may, against regulations, have been taken off campus."

Furthermore, the article goes on to assert that the administration had been previously confronted by individuals concerned about the legality and ethics of the software;
More than a year ago, two Harriton High School student council members privately confronted the principal when they learned that the school could covertly photograph students using the laptop's cameras.

When Kline said it was true, the students told the principal they were worried about privacy rights, and asked questions about other kinds of monitoring. Could, for example, the school system read saved files on their computers? At a minimum, the student leaders told the principal, the student body should be formal warned about any surveillance.

But nothing happened, according to other council members who were briefed afterward, and the student leaders returned a short while later to once again tell the principal that they were greatly concerned about a potential invasion of privacy. Again, nothing happened.

Kline and district spokesman Young did not respond yesterday to requests for comment about the meeting with the principal.

A class action lawsuit has been filed and justifiably so. The software called LanRev has been downplayed as little more than a security software program that helps the school track stolen laptops. But the school is not a law enforcement agency. If the laptops were indeed stolen instead of simply removed from school for home use then the school should have reported them stolen and allowed the police to handle their retrieval.

But that's not what happened. Instead, the school officials did precisely what bureaucrats with too much time on their hands and the opportunity to overstep their authority always do. Like the script of a bad movie they activated the webcam of the laptops of students, collected those snapshots, and apparently confronted at least one student who was eating candy that looked like pills as a drug user.

Here at the Gazette we are shocked by nothing that school officials get involved with. As Einstein is quoted as saying, "the difference between genius and stupidity is that stupidity has no limits."

What concerns us more is the fact that the LanRev software can be and may have been used in a much more pernicious fashion. You see, contrary to the sugar-coated, law-abiding explanation that the administration has painted of this software, it can be used to for criminal behaviors that have the potential to incriminate the end-user (e.g. a student, teacher, administrator, and so on) instead of the true criminal. In other words, in the hands of a disgruntled technical help desk employee, an innocent target's life can be irreversibly harmed. This video details in very technical terms the scope of this software's reach:

To translate that into plain language, this software can covertly alter just about anything on a client machine so that the user can be spied on, the machine used to download pornography or act as a cracking platform, and more. Everything and anything can be compromised including your antivirus, spyware, and malware products.

This software has no place in schools. Innocent families, teachers, employees, or relatives can get entrapped in Julie Amero type nightmares that occur only because software with the same ability to maim a life as a gun is being put into the hands of fools.

And today this is only a school incident. But this stuff poses a political and terrorist threat as well. Imagine the havoc this kind of software can play in a Senator's office, at Homeland Security, the Pentagon, or maybe a foreign diplomat, the UN, and so on. You won't know the Cam is on or the microphone and maybe a background script is working to dump or access confidential information.

The FBI needs to take a long, hard look at this stuff.

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