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Lawsuit Alleges School Used Webcams to Lurk in Students' Homes

By Katherine Noyes
Feb 19, 2010 9:00 AM PT

A Pennsylvania couple has filed a lawsuit against their local school district for allegedly using the webcam in a school-issued laptop to spy on their son at home.

Lawsuit Alleges School Used Webcams to Lurk in Students' Homes

The suit -- which was filed last week in U.S. District Court by Michael Robbins and Holly Robbins on behalf of their son, Blake Robbins -- alleges that the Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa., invaded students' privacy and stole private information, violating numerous laws.

The family seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as well as class action status for the suit, which would allow other students to take part as well. Some 1,800 students within the Lower Merion School District have been issued laptop computers, the filing notes.

'Engaging in Improper Behavior'

What sparked the discovery was Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko's assertion in early November that Harriton High School student Blake Robbins had been "engaging in improper behavior in his home," the filing explains. Matsko allegedly used as evidence of that behavior a photograph taken by the webcam in Robbins' computer.

Robbins' father then confirmed with the school that the district had the ability to remotely activate the webcams in the laptops it gives its students. Documentation accompanying the laptops, the family charged, made no reference to that ability.

"As the laptops at issue were routinely used by students and family members while at home, it is believed and therefore averred that many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various stages of dress or undress," the filing states.

Feature Now Deactivated

The district maintains that the remote activation ability is strictly for the purposes of security.

"The security feature was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student," wrote Superintendent Christopher McGinley in a statement issued late Thursday. "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."

The district has now deactivated the feature, however, and has no plans to reactivate it "without express written notification to all students and families," McGinley noted.

"We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families," he added.

'Very Serious Ramifications'

"I have seen Trojan horses used by stalkers so they could turn on webcams remotely, but this is the first time I've ever heard of a school with the audacity to do something like this," Parry Aftab, privacy lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety, told TechNewsWorld. "There are criminal trespassing laws possibly at work here, and maybe wiretapping as well."

In addition, for the school to take action about what students do at home "violates the Constitution across the board," Aftab added. "They have no authority over what students do in their own homes. This is not Nazi Germany or Cold War Russia."

Whether it violates wiretapping laws or not, "if the school knew about this, it is reprehensible," Aftab opined. "There should be very serious ramifications."

'Administrators Became the Predators'

In general, "privacy is under siege in all aspects of life," Raymond Van Dyke, a partner with Merchant & Gould, told TechNewsWorld. "Although the Supreme Court has said that students in school have reduced rights, people in their own home have considerable constitutional rights regarding privacy."

The school's actions "constitute Big Brother in the school and home, an egregious infringement of privacy as well as the parents' rights to govern their own children and impose limits," Van Dyke added. "Even though the school administrators' presumed intent was to monitor and protect -- e.g., against porn, drugs and online predators -- they clearly crossed the line of propriety. Indeed, the administrators themselves became the predators."

With so many laptops issued by the district, the class action will likely proceed, Van Dyke concluded.

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