Lower Merion School District Sued For Spying On Students Via Webcams In School-Issued Laptops


BOING BOING: According to the filings in Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA) et al, the laptops issued to high-school students in the well-heeled Philly suburb have webcams that can be covertly activated by the schools’ administrators, who have used this facility to spy on students and even their families. The issue came to light when the Robbins’s child was disciplined for “improper behavior in his home” and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence. The suit is a class action, brought on behalf of all students issued with these machines. MORE

ASSOCIATED PRESS: A suburban Philadelphia school district used the webcams in school-issued laptops to spy on students at home, potentially eyeball.thumbnail.jpgcatching them and their families in compromising situations, a family claims in a federal lawsuit.Lower Merion School District officials would not comment on the accusation, but angry students have already responded by putting tape on their laptop cameras and microphones. Sophomore Tom Halperin described students as “pretty disgusted,” and noted that his class recently read “1984,” the George Orwell classic that coined the term “Big Brother.” “This is just bogus,” said Halperin, 15, of Wynnewood, as he left Harriton High School on Thursday with his taped-up computer. “I just think it’s really despicable that they have the ability to just watch me all the time.” The school district can activate the webcams without students’ knowledge or permission, the suit said. Plaintiffs Michael and Holly Robbins suspect the cameras captured students and family members as they undressed and in other embarrassing situations, according to the suit. Such actions would amount to potentially illegal electronic wiretapping, said Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is not involved in the case. MORE

INQUIRER: The district has issued school-owned laptops to 2,290 high school students, starting last school year at Harriton, in an effort to promote eyeball.thumbnail.jpgmore “engaged and active learning and enhanced student achievement,” superintendent Christopher W. McGinley said in a message on the district website. McGinley and school board president David Ebby did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement on its website, the district said that “The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today.” In a later statement, the district said: “Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments. The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator’s screen. This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.” When the computers were distributed to students, the district did not disclose that it could activate the cameras at any time, the suit alleges. MORE

INQUIRER: Virginia DiMedio, who was the Lower Merion district’s technology director until she retired last summer, said that “if there was a report that eyeball.thumbnail.jpga computer was stolen, the next time a person opened it up, it would take their picture and give us their IP [internet protocol] address – the location of where it was coming from.” She said that that feature had been used several times to trace stolen laptops, but there had been no discussion of using that capability to monitor students’ behavior. “I can’t imagine anyone in the district did anything other than track stolen computers,” she said. MORE

ASSOCIATED PRESS: A law-enforcement official with knowledge of the case says the FBI has opened a criminal investigation into a Pennsylvania school district accused of activating webcams inside students’ homes without their knowledge. The official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, says the FBI will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws. MORE

Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (PDF)

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