According to the Associated Press, by way of the local Philadelphia ABC affiliate, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has tossed its hat into the ring with regard to Lower Merion School District’s alleged surveillance of students in their own homes by way of remote access to webcam-equipped laptop computers issued by the district’s two high schools to all 1,800 high school students.
The story was first reported here at America’s Right back on Wednesday evening, one day after a class action lawsuit was filed in federal court in Philadelphia. It has since taken on a life of its own; the news that the FBI is becoming involved is a new, but not wholly unexpected, twist. The AP account:
A law-enforcement official with knowledge of the case says the FBI has opened a criminal investigation into a Pennsylvania school district accused of activating webcams inside students’ homes without their knowledge.
The official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, says the FBI will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws.
I’m no expert on FBI procedure, but I would imagine that the constitutional issues combined with the wiretap-related allegations puts this case right in their wheelhouse. The AP piece also notes that the Montgomery County district attorney’s office is looking into a possible investigation. If I were a betting man, I’d say that national scrutiny alone will be enough to force their hand.
By far, though, the most interesting part of the AP story which noted that school district officials admitted to remotely activating the laptop webcams 42 times to find missing student laptops over a period of the past 14 months, but that at no time did anyone use the capability to spy on students.
Such a statement doesn’t jive, however, with the account by Blake Robbins–the Harriton High School student who filed the complaint–about how he and his family first discovered the remote access capability. 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.
The statements made by the school district so far are all well and good, as is the laptop computing initiative itself (though, as I said before, I’d rather the state and federal funding not have been used), but again it’s a matter of how the initiative was carried out by administrators. The laptops did indeed have the remote access capability, neither parents nor students were apprised of the capability, and the remote access was admittedly used without student or parental notice or consent. And, at the end of the day and any way you look at it, what we saw here was an administration overreaching its very limited authority, infringing students’ and families’ Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure in the process.
I look forward to seeing how things progress, and whether Lower Merion School District’s story changes as federal and county authorities close in on technology department records. I look forward in particular to seeing the pleadings as they are filed by all parties. The district’s response to the plaintiff’s requests for admissions alone will be very interesting. Even at the level the district is admitting to, remotely accessing web cameras on 42 separate occasions, there should be some severe consequences for all parties involved.
Parents should be outraged. Students have every right to feel violated. And every American who may have been concerned about “big brother” but considered issues like the remote activation of webcams a little too close to the tin-foil-hat crowd should stand up and take notice. Lower Merion School District, looking down from a position of relative authority, did not trust students and parents enough to take care of school laptops on their own enough to even apprise them of the remote access capability and provide them with an option to turn it off — at a time when the federal government is looking to get intimately involved in all aspects of daily life, from health care to energy to the college football postseason, this story is even more relevant than it seems.
For more on Robbins v. Lower Merion School District at America’s Right, click HERE.