Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reason #42,989 to Home School: PA School District Using School-Issued Laptop Webcams to Spy on Students

February 17, 2010 by Jeff Schreiber

A class action lawsuit filed late yesterday in Federal Court in Philadelphia has shed light on a secret surveillance program targeting Americans, but this particular operation is not being run by the FBI or the NSA. It’s being run by the Lower Merion School District, in the old-money Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, PA.

The complaint, filed by minor high school student Blake Robbins and his parents, alleges that the school district has been spying on the activities of students and students’ families through the “indiscriminant use of and ability to remotely activate the webcams incorporated into each laptop issued to students,” all without the knowledge or consent of any of the students or parents involved.

Through a one-to-one laptop computer initiative funded by state and federal grants, each of the approximately 1,800 students in the school district’s two high schools, Harriton High School in Rosemont, PA and Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, PA were issued a webcam-equipped personal laptop computer. The initiative, according to remarks by Superintendent—and defendant—Christopher McGinley on the district’s Web site, “enhances opportunities for ongoing collaboration, and ensures that all students have 24/7 access to school based resources and the ability to seamlessly work on projects and research at school and at home.”

What students and parents did not know, however, was that the 24/7 access goes both ways. According to the complaint, nowhere in any of the documentation accompanying the laptops or otherwise disseminated to students and parents was any reference made to the ability of the school district to remotely activate the webcam embedded in each laptop at any time, according to the district’s discretion.

How the capability was discovered should be enough to put any who value civil liberties and privacy on the edge of their seat. From the complaint (emphasis mine):

On November 11, 2009, Plaintiffs were for the first time informed of the above-mentioned capability and practice by the School District when Lindy Matsko, an Assistant Principal at Harriton High School, informed minor Plaintiff that the School District was of the belief that minor Plaintiff was engaged in improper behavior in his home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor Plaintiff’s personal laptop issued by the School District.

It was only then that Blake Robbins’ father, Michael, verified from Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko that the school district did in fact have the capability of remotely activating the cameras embedded in the district-issued laptop computer wherever the computer may be situated and regardless of whether the student is using it, and that the school district could at any time choose “to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.”

The school district’s conduct, the plaintiffs allege, runs afoul of not only the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, but also a laundry list of federal and state laws intended to protect the privacy of people and stored information alike. This includes the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, §1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law as well.

In the complaint, the plaintiffs voice concerns as to any students or family members who could have been caught in “embarrassing and humiliating” situations, noting that “the laptops at issue were routinely used by students and family members while at home,” and 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 stage of dress or undress.”

Blake Robbins and his parents are represented by Mark Haltzman of Lamm Rubenstone LLC. Class members include any students who have been issued webcam-equipped personal laptop computers by the Lower Merion School District. The plainiffs are seeking punitive and other damages stemming from the school district’s invasion of privacy.

Robbins v. Lower Merion School District, case number 2:10cv00665, was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, February 16, 2010. Click HERE for a PDF copy of the complaint.

1 comment:

Mimi Rothschild said...

If preliminary reports are accurate, the Lower Merion School District employees who were involved in the use of web cams to "monitor" student laptops appear to be guilty of numerous felonies, The civil action filed in federal court in Pennsylvania alleges that the Superintendent and Board members are guilty of "invasion of Plaintiff's violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act of 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, ,the Fourth Amendment, and the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act...."

If actions such as these were conducted by any other individual, they would be held criminally liable, not simply civilly as the class action lawsuit stands to date. I trust that the District Attorney of Montgomery County and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will thoroughly and unbiasly investigate the allegations and not capitulate to the powerful school board associations both locally and nationally that will surely seek to absolve their members of any responsibility.

If this case remains solely within the civil courts, the only punitive consequences to pay for Lower Merion School District's malfeasance is monetary. And who pays the money to the victims? The taxpayers.... who are the victims themselves. And the student's themselves pay since the funding allocated for educational programs could be diverted to compensate the victims. This is clearly not an unacceptable outcome to such an egregious list of alleged crimes.

My daughter who is friends with a Lower Merion student sang songs while at a sleepover party in front of the Lower Merion School District issued laptop. Unbeknownst to this group of 12 year old girls, while clad in their pajamas, they could have been watched by the very people entrusted to their education,

Real justice and the best deterrent to such frightening abuse of power by school administrators happens if the wrongdoers are held personally accountable the way anyone else would be.

Mimi Rothschild
Lower Merion resident and Educational Technologist