Lawsuit: PA School District Using School-Issued Laptop Webcams to Spy on Students

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.


SEE ALSO:

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NOTE: Please remember that the complaint filed was just that, a complaint (albeit a class action complaint filed by a reputable attorney at a reputable firm), and that it contains allegations only. The defendants will have a chance to file an answer, generally within 20 days of service of process, though a waiver can extend that deadline by an additional 40 days. Check back here at America’s Right for details about further pleadings as they come in. — Jeff

Spying PA School District Responds, Admits to Lack of Notice, Remote Access

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Comments

  1. Michelle Zhang says:
  2. Michelle Zhang says:

    Oh also, from my friends they said the kid was apparently eating mike n nikes and they thought he was popping pills.

  3. hallsey says:

    i understand spying at school, that is one thing in itself. it’s been there since 2nd grade computer lab. -but at home is something else. because the laptops belong to the school, going through history or whatever is understandable, i guess…but the webcam thing freaks me out.

    oh, i write this from a harriton issued laptop.
    ha. this sucks.

  4. Gail B. says:

    Whazzup–
    BTW, the General Assembly of each state has a Legislative Council, for the legislators to consult over legalities of proposed legislation. IOW, attorneys are hired by just about every aspect of government, at all levels.

    The AG is the attorney for the State and heads the state’s Department of Justice, not the school boards. But you disregarded the fact that I DIDN’T say the AG should attend a school board meeting.

    Go back to sleep!

  5. This really freaks me out! A stalker of some sort.,what makes it even worst is that your stalker is practically tied with you! I just can’t wait hear for justifiable reason to back this up.

  6. Sam says:

    I would check school officials pc’s for images of what they (may) have collected before the images show up on an amature porn site. Perverted voyeurs, sue their butts off!!!

  7. Jennifer W says:

    Does anyone know what kind of computers the kids were given that allowed their cameras to be remotely turned on? Was this a feature of third-party sofware or a capability specific to the hardware?

  8. Michelle Zhang says:

    @ Jennifer

    They were issued Macbooks.

  9. Don says:

    This is totally crazy! Why would they do that with out approval. That is against the privacy of an individual. I can’t imagine what stuffs they found out and recorded.

  10. Eric says:
  11. Hall Monitor says:

    This story made http://detentionslip.org ! Check it out for all the crazy headlines from our schools.

  12. Mike Chevalier says:

    I’ve got a Macbook with built in webcam spying eye. I think I’ll put a piece of tape over it.

  13. Krister Suomesta says:

    You seem to have pedophiles in schools there in the States. This rally makes me puke

  14. Terry Pierce says:

    Mark Twain was right.

    In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.- Mark Twain Following the Equator; Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

  15. Mike Chevalier says:

    So, did any students get caught cheating on homework? Unauthorized nookie? Cooking meth? Growing dope?

  16. JoJo says:

    If these parents were truly concerned about their kids privacy why in the world would they be allowing this 15 year old kid to be on every news media station and now on the talk-show circuit? Lower Merion has some issues to address which will come out once these stupid law suits are finalized. I for one will wait for the truth to come out because it always does. The parents are shameful.

  17. Reading this made me feel smarter,better informed.Great post!

  18. Madge Olsen says:

    If only I had a greenback for every time I came here! Incredible article!

  19. the demand for embedded software these days are getting higher and higher.-*~

  20. Anonymous says:

    “The settlement calls for $175,000 to be placed in a trust for Robbins and $10,000 for Hassan. Their lawyer, Mark Haltzman, will get $425,000 for his work on the case.”

    http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/10/12/philly-school-settles-lawsuit-taking-secret-photos/?test=latestnews

    I can tell you something even more egregious.

    ( I know I said I’d leave, but I thought a followup was in order)

  21. Webcams says:

    Pretty invasive and kinda sick if you ask me.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Lawsuit: PA School District Using School-Issued Laptop Webcams to Spy on Students 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. [...]

  2. [...] Leave a comment Go to comments Smile!  You’re on Candid Camera! That’s what the School District of Lower Merion has to say to its high school students and their families.  The Lower Merion [...]

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  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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  5. [...] to the story posted at America’s Right: It was only then that Blake Robbins’ father, Michael, [...]

  6. [...] to the story posted at America’s Right: It was only then that Blake Robbins’ father, Michael, [...]

  7. [...] Lawsuit: PA School District Using School-Issued Laptop Webcams to … [...]

  8. [...] America’s Right: “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 ‘indiscriminate 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 . . . 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.” [...]

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  10. Side-Lines says:

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  26. [...] On the late local NBC news following the Vancouver Olympics about an hour ago (Friday night), reporters interviewed Blake Robbins and his family, the folks at the center of the class action lawsuit filed against a Main Line school district which had been allegedly spying on students in their own homes through remote access to webcam-enabled, school-issued laptop computers, a story first reported here at America’s Right. [...]

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  32. [...] genitori di Robbins si sono immediatamente ribellati sollevando una class action a cui hanno aderito numerosi genitori e studenti per violazione della privacy di un minorenne, [...]

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