February 18, 2010 By Tanya Roscorla
A lawsuit brought against a Pennsylvania school district alleges school officials violated students' privacy by activating school-issued laptop webcams while they were at home.
Michael E. and Holly S. Robbins filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court against the Lower Merion School District, the district's board of directors and Superintendent of Schools Christopher W. McGinley, alleging they had violated the privacy of their son and the other high school students in the district.
The school district was in the final stages of issuing laptops, which included built-in webcams, to each of the approximately 1,800 students in its two high schools. According to the lawsuit, the Pennsylvania school district had been surveiling Blake and his classmates by remotely activating the webcams while they were at home.
School officials denied the allegations in a letter posted Thursday, Feb. 18, on the district Web site.
The students and parents were not informed that school staff could monitor their behavior, according to the lawsuit, which claimed that on Nov. 11 an assistant principal from Harriton High School told student Blake Robbins that the school district believed he was "engaged in improper behavior at his home." Her proof came from a photograph captured by the webcam that was embedded in his laptop.
That would violate a number of laws, the lawsuit states, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, The Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, a section of the Civil Rights Act, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act and Pennsylvania common law.
McGinley denied the accusations in the letter Thursday. McGinley wrote that "the laptops contain a security feature to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated today."
He explained how the security feature worked.
"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 webcam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."
If the school district did use the webcams to spy on students at home, the parents are justified in filing the suit, said Lillie Coney, associate director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. While lawsuits have been filed regarding student strip searches and cameras placed in bathroom doorways, this is the first lawsuit that has been taken to court over this kind of issue, she said.
While schools should monitor students' behavior in the building, on field trips and at sponsored events, they have no right to monitor what they do in their homes, Coney said.
"How does a school get the power to decide to deploy surveillance technology and use it in that way?" Coney asked. "It's like the ultimate police state experience."
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