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

Yesterday evening, America’s Right reported the story of a class action lawsuit filed in Federal Court in Philadelphia alleging that the Lower Merion School District had been spying on students and students’ families in their own homes through the use of remotely accessible webcams on laptops which had been distributed to each of the district’s 1,800 high school students as part of an initiative funded with state and federal grants.

The plaintiff in the case is Harriton High School student Blake Robbins who, along with his family, first discovered the district’s remote access capability when he was approached by an assistant principal and accused of improper behavior in his own home, with the administrator’s only evidence being a snapshot obtained from the laptop webcam.

Now, the school district is responding to the allegations in the Robbins complaint.

A commenter here at America’s Right claiming to be a Harriton High School student wrote earlier today that, during today’s school day, the school principal “issued a statement over the P.A. System that denied the claims, and stated that the school’s tech department has little power to remotely activate the cameras – and only utilizes it if a stolen computer is reported (to see if they can find the thief).”  Now, please note that we are still in the process of verifying that the commenter is, in fact, a Harriton High School student, but his account of the administration’s announcement certainly comports with the official statement offered by Lower Merion School District Superintendent Dr. Christopher McGinley on the district’s Web site.  The statement:

Dear LMSD Community,

Last year, our district became one of the first school systems in the United States to provide laptop computers to all high school students. This initiative has been well received and has provided educational benefits to our students.

The District is dedicated to protecting and promoting student privacy. The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today.

The following questions and answers help explain the background behind the initial decision to install the tracking-security feature, its limited use, and next steps.

• Why are webcams installed on student laptops?

The Apple computers that the District provides to students come equipped with webcams and students are free to utilize this feature for educational purposes.

• Why was the remote tracking-security feature installed?

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.

• How did the security feature work?

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.

• Do you anticipate reactivating the tracking-security feature?

Not without express written notification to all students and families.

We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families. We are reviewing the matter and will provide an additional update as soon as information becomes available.


Dr. Christopher McGinley


Before tearing the statement apart, piece by piece, I should point out that I have no problem whatsoever with an initiative providing laptop computers to students.  Granted, I would prefer that state and federal grants not be used, and I would certainly prefer that the technology not include remotely accessible webcams, but the idea itself is just fine.  I believe wholeheartedly in a free market approach to education with minimal (if any) federal involvement, the idea being akin to Ronald Reagan’s comparison of federalism with a “thousand sparks of genius” in all of the states and communities which should be nurtured in order to see which ones catch fire — if certain school districts have success with various initiatives and programs, that laboratory of sorts will allow other school districts to pursue the same success.

Therefore, if a laptop-centric approach to education works for Lower Merion, which along with nearby Radnor Township School District  are certainly among the best in the state, more power to them.  Where the school district went wrong, however, was in creating a vehicle for a tremendous abuse of power and violation of constitutional rights, not to mention state and federal law.

And a violation it certainly was.  Even for folks like myself who do not read an actual right to privacy into the Constitution, this was an overt violation of the Fourth Amendment as it was written and intended.  Obviously, James Madison and his friends knew nothing of e-mail, webcams or MacBooks, but it is important to note that in drafting our founding documents the framers knew less of what they wanted America to become and more of what they did not want their great experiment to descend into.  The Fourth Amendment was largely written in response to pre-Revolution warrantless searches of colonists’ homes by British soldiers searching for tax stamps and signs of smuggling, a necessary evil in the mercantilist economy at the time.

If we are to believe the allegations put forth by Blake Robbins in the class action complaint filed late Tuesday, the incident which alerted Robbins and his family to the school district’s remote-access capabilities featured an overreaching school district peering into private homes without notice or consent, all in search of “improper behavior” of the sort that Robbins was confronted with.

Furthermore, in the statement released a few hours ago, Lower Merion School District not only admits to the existence of the remote access capability (“[t]he laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops”) which had indeed been active (“[t]his feature has been deactivated effective today”), but also admits to exactly who has the discretion to activate the feature (“the feature was activated by the District’s security and technology departments”) and comes clean on the lack of student or parental notification alleged by Robbins in the complaint:

• Do you anticipate reactivating the tracking-security feature?

Not without express written notification to all students and families.

The mere existence and activation of the remote access capability, which Lower Merion School District admits to in the statement by Superintendent McGinley, means that the district is in possession of and has made use of an “electronic, mechanical or other device” through which, by taking a picture of Blake Robbins in his own home, it has intercepted electronic communications in the form of imaging and other data in violation of Sections 2510 and 2511 of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

More over, that the school district has admitted to its capacity to conjure up such images at the discretion of its security and technology departments means that the district’s conduct was not only unlawful but also was done consciously and intentionally, which could make Blake Robbins and the other students eligible for punitive damages under Section 2520 of the ECPA.

Furthermore, if it is to be determined that Lower Merion School District activated the remote access to the district-issued laptop computers without notice or consent of students and parents, as the school district certain seems to admit to in its statement, then the school administrators have also run afoul of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Section 1030 of which notes that “[w]hoever … intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access” and obtains information shall be subject to punishment.  Certainly, remote activation of a webcam in someone’s private home without consent constitutes “exceeds authorized access,” especially considering the United States Supreme Court’s holding in 1980′s Payton v. New York that “[a]bsent exigent circumstances,” when it comes to unreasonable search the Fourth Amendment “has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house.”

At least, that’s the way I see it.  Obviously, there are going to be other perspectives and, truthfully, many will come from folks far better versed in statutory interpretation than I.  The Fourth Amendment violation, in my opinion, is pretty darned clear — what is not clear is how the court will interpret the various terms, provisions and other language in the relevant sections of the ECPA and CFAA and the other laws the school district allegedly violated.

What comes next though, especially with regard to public opinion, is the matter of scope.  In other words, just how far was this overreaching school district reaching?  If we are to believe the purported student who left a comment here at America’s Right, it seems as though school officials did not limit the discretionary activation of the security feature to concerns of lost and stolen laptops.  The comment again, in full (emphasis mine):

To all the people that say that this isn’t real, it is. It definitely is. I am a student at Harriton High School (the school of two in the district where this took place) and just today our principal issued a statement over the P.A. System that denied the claims, and stated that the school’s tech department has little power to remotely activate the cameras – and only utilizes it if a stolen computer is reported (to see if they can find the thief). However, I don’t believe that for two seconds. If anybody here owns a Mac, you know that a green light turns on when the camera is in use. I can personally attest to that light turning on at a time when I was at home.

As a dad myself, I can say unequivocally that all of this should be enough to make any parent–not to mention any American who values individual freedom and liberty or any human who values privacy–shudder, shut off and unplug all electronic devices, and hold their children close.

As a law student who hopes to pass the bar and find a job down in Charleston, SC by the end of this summer, I cannot wait to see the answer filed by the Lower Merion School District.  Especially interesting will be the paragraph-by-paragraph responses to the allegations and specific statutory violations touched upon above, and how those responses compare with what I see as some interesting admissions in the statement issued not so long ago.  Undoubtedly, it’s going to be a matter of statutory interpretation, but I must say that absent some sort of impropriety among the complaining parties the overarching theme here will make for an uphill climb for the school district.  Stay tuned here at America’s Right for details as they emerge.



  1. Michelle Zhang says:

    I commented in the other thing but I figured I’d let everyone know that the kid was allegedly eating mike n nikes and was accused of popping pills.

  2. John Feeny says:

    I can attest to this as well, but in only a much more limited fashion. When one of the techs came to service all of the administrators’ computers at my school a while back, I told him that I was going to install the webcam that I had in my possession onto my school computer, simply because it’s nice to be able to call home and to see my family when I’m at work some times. He shook his head “No.” When I inquired, he said that millions of people have their privacy violated daily by people who know how to remotely access webcams. He also mentioned the ‘green light’, and as soon as he said it, I remembered wondering why the green light atop my home computer would seemingly go on by itself from time to time.

  3. Gail B. says:

    The question that comes to my mind concerns the way this was discovered (the student was accused of inappropriate behavior at home by someone at the school) and the reason that the principal gave for having turned on the web cam. If the laptop was in the boy’s own home, it wasn’t stolen, was it?

  4. m00pa says:


    Without you and ‘America’s Right’ I believe there would be no knowledge of this story in today’s news.

    Thanks to you this story is almost ‘Viral’, and will no doubt be by the end of today……I just “Googled” and there are now over 600 news articles, major props, well done, very well done sir! (8am)

  5. Anonymous says:

    At this moment I am accessing Al Gores webcam to check his homes thermostat setting. (Thats about all I wanna see of him and Tipper, trust me)

  6. John Feeny says:

    Gail -
    Possibly, but let’s consider him innocent until proven guilty. I think it’s more likely that with such an extensive laptop program, the school more than likely allows students (especially those who can’t afford one) to ‘sign them out’ in some form or fashion – of course,knowing WHICH laptop to activate would speak to exactly that (or it could be, as you said, they were searching for a missing one). In either case, it’s quite disturbing.

  7. Robbins Mitchell says:

    Those people are soooo screwed…and soooo sued!

  8. Michelle Zhang says:

    @ John Feeney

    The students didn’t have to pay for the laptops. Ever student was loaned a laptop with the idea that they would always have access to school material without having to be at school. They got them the beginning of the year and they are to return them at the end of the school year.

  9. TNelson says:

    Sounds like this is going to unravel like a Toyota recall coverup!

  10. John Blake says:

    Whether comprising a digital image or not, digits are digits. As readers may know, since about 2006 every commercially-available computer (desktop, laptop, whatever) incorporates a hardware surveillance device designed to transmit your every keystroke to a national database which constantly scans all traffic for hints of “terrorist activity”. Needless to say, this renders any individual computer-user guilty of anything Big Brother cares to charge you with… and since prosecutors’ resources are infinite, arbitrary and capricious accusations effectively extort compliance on pain of personal bankruptcy.

    If school district administrators are this pork-ignorant of Constitutional reality, what about knowing, willful violations by clandestine authorities pursuing a hypothetical “defense agenda” with no slightest interest in any Rule of Law?

  11. Michelle Zhang says:
  12. T.I.M. says:

    John Blake:

    While I hope you’re kidding, I (and, I’m sure others) would like to see the details on every computer since 2006 being tied into Big Brother.

    Thanks for the specifics.

  13. John Feeny says:

    Michelle – I figured it was something along those lines. good program on paper, but absolutely rife with problems. The school system needs to do all relevant homework (excuse the pun) before jumping into a pool like that.

  14. David says:

    Webcam—->tape. Remove tape when computer taken to school. Let the snoops figure it out.

    Meanwhile, that school system is hosed… Just another data point in validation of my assertion that pubschool administrators, as a class, are the stupidest people in the system, and that the system would be improved greatly if they were all placed on chain gangs making little rocks out of big ones. For life.

  15. Tape-A-Camera says:

    A Simple Solution for These Types of Shenanigans: Black Electrical Tape!

    Just put some black electrician’s tape over the web cam, but leave the green LED exposed so you can see if the camera is on.

    Another way to disable the web cam is to disable the device driver (module) for the web cam on thr macbook.

    Still, the tape-over-the-web-cam scenario is by far the easiest, and with the electrical tape visible to the user, it also serves as a visibly physical deterrent to any would-be monitorees when the student is at school.


  16. Boston Blackie says:

    Jeff, Congrats on your scoop!!
    My only question is did the school district get stimulas money to buy these laptops. According to Michelle Zhang this is a well to do district. Why couldn’t I get in on that deal for my kid. College students are required to own laptops now, a desk computer is old school. The college makes the parents either buy one or rent from them. In my daughter’s case, her college even required that it be an Apple laptop(two grand later!..).

  17. Ian Thorpe says:

    Here’s a little test for you Jeff. Guess which novel this passage is taken from. Clue: It was first published in 1948 LOL.

    “It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself–anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face…; was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime…”

  18. Jeff Schreiber says:

    Ian, I know the novel well.

  19. Michelle Zhang says:

    @ Ian Thorpe

    Have you read We by Yevgeny Zamyatin?


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  3. [...] at America’s Right.  That information is covered in Thursday evening’s piece, seen HERE. The attached exhibits coupled with statements provided by Defendants to the media establish that [...]

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