FBI Gets Involved in School Spying Case

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.

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Comments

  1. twocanpete says:

    Enough with the insulting comments! Just because a citizen holds their government to account and doesn’t take as fact every single word that falls from the mouths of the overlords / school officials, does not make said citizen a tinfoil hat wearer.

  2. whats_up says:

    twocanpete says:

    Enough with the insulting comments! Just because a citizen holds their government to account and doesn’t take as fact every single word that falls from the mouths of the overlords / school officials, does not make said citizen a tinfoil hat wearer.

    Twocan:

    You mistake what Jeff wrote, re-read it again.

    Jeff:

    I agree with every word of this article. Nicely done!

  3. Brett says:

    My question is this: What IS the “improper behavior” which is depicted in the picture? If the picture is of a minor child in a state of undress, then the school officials who have this photo or have access to this photo should be held responsible for possessing child pornography or any other appropriate criminal charge. That would then place them on the sex offender registrations lists which would then cause them to be removed from their teaching positions.

  4. Jeff Schreiber says:

    My question is this: What IS the “improper behavior” which is depicted in the picture?

    Michelle nailed it — Mike & Ikes. According to a report I saw 20 minutes ago on the local news, the attorney for the family confirmed that the assistant principal approached the kid with a photo showing him holding two Mike & Ikes. They were concerned he was doing drugs. Good thing they weren’t Good & Plentys. Or God forbid one of those fun-dip things with all the white powder!

    It’s insane. I have an embedded webcam on the netbook my company–my day job–sent me a few weeks ago when my previous laptop began to disintegrate. The other night, I cleaned a pistol on my desk at home. Perfectly legal behavior (and trust me, it needed the cleaning), but what if my boss saw it and became concerned? The whole thing is insane.

    Jeff:

    I agree with every word of this article. Nicely done!

    Stop the presses!

    Just so y’all know — there’s more coming. There was an injunction filed this afternoon that I was able to grab right before I left the courthouse, but I haven’t had the chance to address it yet. It’s basically asking that the court enjoin the school district from future activation of the embedded webcams, but I’d really like to do the story some justice and pull some quotes from the injunction. The problem is that I have work to do for school, and another 3:30 a.m. bedtime will absolutely kill me tomorrow.

    At the very least, I’ll get the file uploaded and just give a brief explanation of what it is. Stay tuned … this thing is heating up.

  5. Gail B. says:

    Holy Smokes!

    Whazzup–THANK YOU for your comment! That was, indeed, gentlemanly!

    Jeff–Ya think the FBI reads America’s Right? (From a comment you made a while back, I think they do. Good deal!)

  6. Gail B. says:

    I’d never heard of a Mike & Ike, so I looked it up. They do look a lot like Placidyl, which is a sleep-inducing hypnotic drug.

  7. GATOR-1 says:

    I just found a new use for electrical tape :)

    That should fix any further intrusions.

  8. Bill Carter says:

    Any such spying is a violation of several Constitutional provisions. That students were not informed of such spying makes all people involved in this domestic spying/terrorism business guilty of violations of civil rights. I mentioned terrorism because that seems to be exactly what the school district is doing.

    That said: The FBI under the current regime will probably do nothing though it should. I personally believe the current regime is illegitimate any way it is viewed and doesn’t want its minions exposed to public scrutiny.The investigation will die in a few days.

  9. Jeremy says:

    I have a problem with your use of the term, “tin foil hat”.

    Everyone knows that only a steel V2K Cap will protect against mind control weaponry.

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  1. [...] isn’t the only new twist in this story.  As the Associated Press reported earlier, the FBI has become involved, as has the Montgomery County district attorney’s office.  Furthermore, Haltzman filed a [...]

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