PHILADELPHIA — The FBI is investigating a Pennsylvania school district accused of secretly activating webcams inside students' homes, a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case told the Associated Press on Friday.
The FBI will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the investigation.
Days after a student filed a lawsuit over the practice, Lower Merion officials acknowledged Friday that they remotely activated webcams 42 times in the past 14 months, but only to find missing student laptops. They insist they never did so to spy on students, as the student's family claimed in the federal lawsuit.
Families were not informed of the possibility the webcams might be activated in their homes without their permission in the paperwork students sign when they get the computers, district spokesman Doug Young said.
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"It's clear what was in place was insufficient, and that's unacceptable," Young said.
The district has suspended the practice amid the lawsuit and the accompanying uproar from students, the community and privacy advocates. District officials hired outside counsel to review the past webcam activations and advise the district on related issues, Young said.
Remote-activation software can be used to capture keystrokes, send commands over the Internet or turn computers into listening devices by turning on built-in microphones. People often use it for legitimate purposes — to access computers from remote locations, for example. But hackers can use it to steal passwords and spouses to track the whereabouts of partners or lovers.
The Pennsylvania case shows how even well-intentioned plans can go awry if officials fail to understand the technology and its potential consequences, privacy experts said. Compromising images from inside a student's bedroom could fall into the hands of rogue school staff or otherwise be spread across the Internet, they said.
"What about the (potential) abuse of power from higher ups, trying to find out more information about the head of the PTA?" wondered Ari Schwartz, vice president at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "If you don't think about the privacy and security consequences of using this kind of technology, you run into problems."