February 18 2010

Pennsylvania School Sued For Spying On Students Via Webcams

It seems that when the Lower Merion School District gave laptops to its 2300 high school students, there was a little unadvertised bonus included: a webcam that can be remotely operated any time the school district sees fit.

On Nov. 11th, 2009, Blake J. Robbins was called to his high school’s Asst. Principal’s office where he was informed he was in trouble for “improper behavior in his home.”  As evidence of his poor behavior, he was presented with prints outs of images taken from his laptop’s webcam.

Upon informing his parents of the situation, his father, Michael Robbins, questioned the Asst. Principal about how the evidence was collected.  She confirmed that the school district was able to remotely access the webcams built into the laptops the students had been given.

The Robbins family has now filed a class action lawsuit (PDF link) on behalf of all 2300 students against the school district, its board of directors and Superintendent Christoper McGinley.   The suit says that the students that were given these laptops can sue for “invasion of Plaintiff’s privacy, theft of Plaintiff’s private information and unlawful interception and access to acquired and exported data and other stored electronic communications in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, The Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, § 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act and Pennsylvania common law.”

If the plaintiffs are able to prove their case, all awards would be split amongst the 2300 students named in the class.

According to the research of the legal team working for the Robbins, there was nothing in the documentation that came with the laptops, or on the Web site of the school district that mentioned the ability to remotely activate the webcams.

If the evidence bears out, and this proves to be true, I am disgusted down to my core, and I wonder why criminal charges aren’t also being filed.

As Cory Doctorow pointed out on Boing Boing, people keep laptops in their bedrooms where they sleep, change clothes and engage in private matters.  Imagine the webcam gets remotely activated while a teenager is changing.  What if the laptop happens to be in the parents bedroom while they are engaged in sexual activity?  Essentially, again if this is true, the Lower Merion School district just bugged 2300 homes.

And I am dying to know what constituted the “improper behavior in his home” that set this whole sequence of events in to motion.  Whatever happened in his home, no matter how “improper”, was none of the school’s business.  If it doesn’t happen on school property or time, anything the student may have been engaged in would be the business of his parents or the police if need be, but not the school’s.

I sincerely hope that this is a misunderstanding and somehow this has all been a mistake, but if it proves to be true, then the school district deserves to go bankrupt.

As a side note, I called the school district this morning in conjunction to another article I was writing on the subject.  The receptionists seemed more than just  bit exasperated when I asked for the press relations department, and I never did get a hold of anyone in the office, nor were any calls returned.  Apparently they were a bit overwhelmed today …

Correction: Changed 1800 students to 2300 students.

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