Government Technology

School District Spied on Students via Laptop Webcams, Lawsuit Claims



February 18, 2010 By

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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Comments

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

How can the voters allow the school district to give laptops to all students? No wonder taxes are so high! Too much is expected upon the schools and they're then attacked by the same people that give them that power. America is full of people with no common sense.

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

How can the voters allow the school district to give laptops to all students? No wonder taxes are so high! Too much is expected upon the schools and they're then attacked by the same people that give them that power. America is full of people with no common sense.

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

How can the voters allow the school district to give laptops to all students? No wonder taxes are so high! Too much is expected upon the schools and they're then attacked by the same people that give them that power. America is full of people with no common sense.

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

When they thought up this plan, how could anyone at the district think it would end well?

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

When they thought up this plan, how could anyone at the district think it would end well?

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

When they thought up this plan, how could anyone at the district think it would end well?

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

The issue here is invasion of privacy, not the fact that students are issued laptops by the district. The alleged misuse of the computing equipment to monitor the students activities beyond school activities is illegal. If this is proven to be the case, legal action should be taken against the parties named in the suit.

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

The issue here is invasion of privacy, not the fact that students are issued laptops by the district. The alleged misuse of the computing equipment to monitor the students activities beyond school activities is illegal. If this is proven to be the case, legal action should be taken against the parties named in the suit.

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

The issue here is invasion of privacy, not the fact that students are issued laptops by the district. The alleged misuse of the computing equipment to monitor the students activities beyond school activities is illegal. If this is proven to be the case, legal action should be taken against the parties named in the suit.

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

Reading this article "between the lines" and parental "indignity" one gets the sense that the camera was only activated, per school policy, when it was reported "lost, stolen or missing..." implying that this was the circumstance of the activation. While I completely concur that this technology should NEVER be used to spy or monitor lawful citizens, I cannot help but speculate that perhaps there is more to this story and the adage, " the lady doth protest too much me thinks" applies....I suppose the best defense by the "offended" is an aggressive offense to detract from the facts of the case...

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

Reading this article "between the lines" and parental "indignity" one gets the sense that the camera was only activated, per school policy, when it was reported "lost, stolen or missing..." implying that this was the circumstance of the activation. While I completely concur that this technology should NEVER be used to spy or monitor lawful citizens, I cannot help but speculate that perhaps there is more to this story and the adage, " the lady doth protest too much me thinks" applies....I suppose the best defense by the "offended" is an aggressive offense to detract from the facts of the case...

Anonymous    |    Commented February 19, 2010

Reading this article "between the lines" and parental "indignity" one gets the sense that the camera was only activated, per school policy, when it was reported "lost, stolen or missing..." implying that this was the circumstance of the activation. While I completely concur that this technology should NEVER be used to spy or monitor lawful citizens, I cannot help but speculate that perhaps there is more to this story and the adage, " the lady doth protest too much me thinks" applies....I suppose the best defense by the "offended" is an aggressive offense to detract from the facts of the case...

wondertruth    |    Commented February 19, 2010

Hope Police charge and jail these perverted deviant school employees!

wondertruth    |    Commented February 19, 2010

Hope Police charge and jail these perverted deviant school employees!

wondertruth    |    Commented February 19, 2010

Hope Police charge and jail these perverted deviant school employees!

amilah    |    Commented February 19, 2010

its my understanding that the student was confronted by an assistant principal regarding his behavior at home. the principal also had a photo! the district is in a heap of trouble I think

amilah    |    Commented February 19, 2010

its my understanding that the student was confronted by an assistant principal regarding his behavior at home. the principal also had a photo! the district is in a heap of trouble I think

amilah    |    Commented February 19, 2010

its my understanding that the student was confronted by an assistant principal regarding his behavior at home. the principal also had a photo! the district is in a heap of trouble I think

Anonymous    |    Commented February 24, 2010

Other sources are stating that the laptops are only to be used in school. If that is the case the student removed the laptop from the school without permission and is concidered stolen. With that in mind, maybe the school was justified in enabling the cam to find the computer. After all it is tax payer money.

Web Cams can be dangerous. Don't leave them on. I would never buy a computer with a built in cam because you never know who is watching.

We all need to get use to "Big Brother". He is here and he is watching. Technology is great but also problematic

Anonymous    |    Commented February 24, 2010

Other sources are stating that the laptops are only to be used in school. If that is the case the student removed the laptop from the school without permission and is concidered stolen. With that in mind, maybe the school was justified in enabling the cam to find the computer. After all it is tax payer money.

Web Cams can be dangerous. Don't leave them on. I would never buy a computer with a built in cam because you never know who is watching.

We all need to get use to "Big Brother". He is here and he is watching. Technology is great but also problematic

Anonymous    |    Commented February 24, 2010

Other sources are stating that the laptops are only to be used in school. If that is the case the student removed the laptop from the school without permission and is concidered stolen. With that in mind, maybe the school was justified in enabling the cam to find the computer. After all it is tax payer money.

Web Cams can be dangerous. Don't leave them on. I would never buy a computer with a built in cam because you never know who is watching.

We all need to get use to "Big Brother". He is here and he is watching. Technology is great but also problematic


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