Friday, February 19, 2010

Lawsuit: Pennsylvania School's Laptops Used to Spy on Students

A federal lawsuit alleges that a Pennsylvania school used laptop video cameras to spy on its students at their homes:

A suburban school district used webcams in school-issued laptops to spy on students at home, potentially catching them and their families in compromising situations, a family claims in a federal lawsuit.

Lower Merion School District officials said the laptops "contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops," and that the feature was deactivated Thursday. Angry students already had put tape on their laptop cameras and microphones.

...The school district can activate the webcams without students' knowledge or permission, the suit said. Plaintiffs Michael and Holly Robbins suspect the cameras captured students and family members as they undressed and in other embarrassing situations, according to the suit.

Such actions would amount to potentially illegal electronic wiretapping, said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is not involved in the case.

...The Robbinses said they learned of the reported webcam images in November, when Lindy Matsko, an assistant principal at Harriton High School, told their son Blake that school officials thought he had engaged in improper behavior at home. The behavior was not specified in the suit.

"(Matsko) cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in minor plaintiff's personal laptop issued by the school district," the suit states. The behavior was not specified in the suit, which did not make clear whether the family had seen any photographs captured by school officials.

More here.

Professor Eugene Volokh comments:
If this was indeed done, and if it was done without adequately notifying the students and their parents, this was clearly tortious, likely a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and possibly a statutory violation as well (though I haven’t looked closely at the statutory details). It is also appalling — school officials spying on children in their parents’ homes without the children’s and parents’ permission. Who thinks up such things?
The Volokh commentary, however, also includes excerpts of the district school board's apparent denial of the students' allegations, which remain unproven:
The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today....

Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property. 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....

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 web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever....

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

Update: February 19, 2010

Associated Press: FBI Probing PA Webcam Case

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