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FBI Aims to Find the Truth in School Spying Case

FBI Aims to Find the Truth in School Spying Case

The FBI has become involved in the waking nightmare in Pennsylvania over accusations that school officials spied on students in their homes. If the allegations are true, students and families were subjected to outrageous "Big Brother" violations of privacy. If false, it's the school officials who are hoping to wake up and find themselves exonerated.

By Erika Morphy
02/23/10 8:35 AM PT

Whatever hopes Harriton High School might have had that the furor sparked by a student's privacy lawsuit would die down have surely been dashed. The school's concerns have now moved beyond the realm of unfavorable publicity to the possibility of criminal charges.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly has stepped into the case and is investigating the allegations at the heart of Blake Robbins v. the Lower Merion School District.

While it is impossible to generalize about the motives behind any FBI probe, as the agency has been known to get involved in cases for a myriad of reasons, there's a good chance that criminal charges may be in the offing, Christopher M. Collins, a partner with Vanderpool, Frostick & Nishanian, told TechNewsWorld.

"Certainly, it would appear that the FBI is investigating the possibility that a crime has occurred that falls under its purview," he said.

Blame It on Mike and Ike

The suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court by Robbins' parents on behalf of their son, charges that an assistant principal at the high school accused the student of "improper behavior" and showed him a picture taken by the webcam on his school-issued notebook computer. The assistant vice principal mistook Mike and Ike candy for drugs, Robbins said, according to media accounts.

The school, for its part, denied that the webcam was used to discipline Robbins or that any of the school's staff -- except two technicians -- were able to access the remote-activated devices. The webcams' monitoring capabilities were to be used only in the event a computer was reported stolen or lost, the school maintained.

School officials have acknowledged that they have remotely activated students' webcams 42 times for the purpose of locating lost or stolen computers.

The Robbins' lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as well as class action status, which would allow other students to join the complaint. Some 1,800 students within the Lower Merion School District have been issued laptop computers, according to the filing.

Documentation that accompanied the school-issued computers did not inform students that the webcams could be remote-activated for any purpose, according to the suit.

Big Lapse

If the school had requested that students' parents sign a waiver for use of the remote monitoring technology, it would now be on much stronger legal ground with the case -- and possibly might have staved off FBI involvement, Collins said.

In general, students' privacy rights are weaker than those of an average person who is not subject to the school board's jurisdiction, he noted, and school boards have traditionally tried to stretch their powers over students to the edge of the envelope.

One highly publicized recent case was a lawsuit brought by a young woman who was subjected to a strip search by school officials based on another student's accusations. The plaintiff ultimately won her case because the circumstances did not warrant the measures taken by the school officials, Collins recalled.

"That case went up to the Supreme Court, because the school wanted to see how far its power could extend. Now, it appears they are testing the same boundaries with electronic surveillance," he said.

In the Robbins case, a waiver would have been key, suggested Collins, because the school was attempting to stretch its oversight beyond school walls -- where federal and state laws are much more clear cut.

Assuming that Robbins' claims are validated by an investigation of the school's systems, it is likely the school will first try to pin the action on a rogue employee, Collins speculated, disavowing any policy of spying on students.

"It is a stupid one because most people find it overly intrusive and a gross violation of privacy," he said.

The school may try to carve out some right to monitor students electronically despite the uproar, said Collins.

"I think at some point we will hear some variant of 'we need this ability to protect students against drugs or attacks or threats against other students,'" he speculated.

Consent Might Not Be Enough

Even with the wider latitude schools traditionally have, there are clear provisions in U.S. law against eavesdropping, Charles E. Kutner, principal at Charles Kutner, told TechNewsWorld.

Even the FBI is subject to strict parameters concerning what it can and cannot listen to when it has a warrant, he said.

"This case presents all sorts of human and civil rights issues, especially if there was someone in the room who never consented," he noted.

Even if the school had gotten consent, there would still be issues, Kutner added. "There is the question of whether a student can waive his or her rights -- and if so, what exactly was consented to."


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