If it weren’t so gosh-darned serious, it would be funny.
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 on Wednedday.
The NBC reporter also interviewed Mark Haltzman, the family’s attorney. Harriton High School student Blake Robbins, remember, only found out about the school districts remote access capabilities when an assistant principal approached him with a snapshot taken from Robbins’ school-issued laptop and, according to what the kid said in a CBS Evening News interview, accused him of dealing drugs. That “improper behavior,” Haltzman said, was Blake Robbins holding a pair of Mike & Ike candies, apparently one of the kid’s favorite snacks.
As I said, if it weren’t so serious, if the as-yet-unknown scope of the school district’s unconstitutional and unconscionable conduct didn’t worry students and parents who routinely had the computers set up in bedrooms and other sensitive areas within their own homes, the whole thing would be hilarious.
Haltzman, by the way, also confirmed that at no time was Blake Robbins’ laptop computer reported lost or stolen. This, of course, undermines repeated statements made by Lower Merion School District that the students’ webcams were only activated in cases when the laptops were reported lost or stolen. It also confirms what one commenter here at America’s Right–who held himself out as a Harriton student–wrote on Thursday, that he had noticed the green light on his own district-issued laptop illuminate arbitrarily from time to time while the computer was set up at home.
The story has been all over the news here in the Philadelphia area, but news coverage 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 Motion for issuance of an Emergency Temporary Restraining Order and imposition of Permanent Injunction in federal court Friday afternoon asking that the court enjoin Lower Merion School District from any further use of the remote webcam access “security feature.”
The district, of course, said in a statement on Thursday that the feature had already been disabled as of that day but, then again, they’ve also insisted that the feature was only used in cases of suspected loss or theft — and considering the comments regarding arbitrarily brightening green lights in students’ homes, the district’s credibility seems to be sinking faster than the balance in Tiger Woods’ joint checking account.
Think about it for a moment, though. Educators generally tend to lean to the left, and an overarching perspective among those on the American political left is that government knows better than the individual, that schools can parent better than parents — is it really so far-fetched to consider that the administration was policing its own students looking for wrongdoing (or fruity candy proliferation in a pinch)? Or, if not that, is it really far-fetched to think that the administration at the very least did not have an adequate grasp on the number or type of people able to wield this power of omnipresence?
Whatever your thoughts, the full text of the motion is available by clicking HERE, but I thought I’d include a few highlights.
Since the filing of Plaintiffs’ Class Action Complaint, Defendants have admitted that the lap top computers issued to all high school students in the Lower Merion School District contain software which enables Defendants to remotely activate web cams embedded in the lap tops. A true and correct copy of the email sent to all the students and parents on February 18, 2010, all members of the proposed class of Plaintiffs, as well as the statement that appears on the Defendant School District’s website are collectively attached hereto as Exhibit “B” and speak for themselves as to Defendant’s admissions.
Want to see Exhibit B? Click HERE. As for the statement, I first read it during a break from class on Thursday evening and I was flabbergasted. I was amazed that the district essentially admitted to everything, almost down the line, only a little more than 48 hours after the complaint was filed and 24 hours after the story was first reported here 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 Defendants have the ability to activate the peeping tom technology by use of an embedded camera in every laptop for the purpose of using such peeping tom technology to take a snap shot of what is appearing in front of the webcam and what is on the laptop computer screen.
Moreover, the Defendants admit it has the ability to unilaterally, arbitrarily and capriciously activate and deactivate the camera and software that is utilized to accomplish this invasion of privacy.
Additionally, notwithstanding Defendants’ public pronouncement in response to Plaintiffs’ institution of their class action that the embedded camera was only activated to and employed to investigate lost or stolen laptops, a number of the affected class members were interview by various news media outlets yesterday, which interviews reveal that the embedded web camera was turned on indiscriminately by Defendants as evidenced by the illumination of a small green light adjacent to the camera that indicated its activation, as has been reported by a number of members of the class.
That last paragraph is the killer, in my opinion. It seems as though the many news reports I’ve seen and read have focused on the spying and the technology but not on the most important facet of it all: Blake Robbins was in his own home, using his own district-issued laptop–which hadn’t been reported as either lost or stolen–when his laptop’s webcam was accessed without consent or authorization, his picture was taken, and it was later used against him by school administrators who insinuated that he was involved in “improper behavior.”
Imagine if those Mike & Ikes were Good N’ Plentys or that powdery fun-dip stuff. Or if, God forbid, he had been tweaking the optics attached to an air rifle.
That the school district is capturing images of students at home, and that more students are coming forward and saying that their green lights, too, had been illuminated from time to time — that’s the hook. I could see the depositions right now:
Attorney: So, Tiffani, you’re a junior at Lower Merion High School, yes?
Attorney: And how old are you?
Tiffani: I’m fifteen.
Attorney: Do you have a MacBook that was issued by Lower Merion School District?
Tiffani: Yes I do.
Attorney: Did you ever notice the green light which indicates the camera is active illuminated when you weren’t using the camera yourself?
Tiffani: Yes, I have noticed it.
Attorney: And where do you usually keep the laptop, Tiffani?
Tiffani: In my bedroom.
Attorney: You know, I have a daughter about your age who is absolutely obsessed with Facebook. It seems like our computer is always on and always open to Facebook so she doesn’t miss any messages from her friends. Did you usually keep your laptop on?
Tiffani: Oh, yes. I’m always on Facebook, too. It’s, like, so cool.
Attorney: And so it wouldn’t be out-of-the-question to guess that your laptop was likely in your bedroom and on at times when you were changing to go to school, or changing into your pyjamas at night?
Tiffani: No, not at all. It’s, like, literally on all the time.
Think it’s far-fetched? Consider the case of Savannah Williams, who told the CBS Early Show that her school-issued webcam-equipped laptop computer is on all the time, including at times when the Harriton High School sophomore is doing homework and getting changed. She even brings the laptop into the bathroom with her to listen to music while showering.
“Everyone is talking about it at school,” Williams told CBS. “Everyone was really worried about ‘what are they watching me doing?’”
Haltzman, in the motion filed late yesterday afternoon, doesn’t miss the point like many of the news outlets have. In noting that “[e]ven the use of the peeping tom technology for the after-the-fact justification recited by defendants [stolen laptop recovery] still violates the Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, especially when there clearly exists a less intrusive technology that could have been employed to accomplish the same result,” he’s right on the money with the overt violation of constitutional rights here, not to mention the real emotional impact of such an invasion of privacy of these kids.
The motion also contains the reasons behind the decision to seek a temporary restraining order and injunctive relief. The first reason has to do with the aforementioned credibility gap and concerns that despite language to the contrary, “there can be no assurances that the School District will disable the use of the remote webcam or, once deactivated, make an internal decision to reactivate the webcam. The second reason has to do with something far more sinister:
Moreover, Plaintiff has been informed and believes that Defendants intend to reclaim each laptop from the possession of members of the class for the purpose of wiping clean the hard drive or otherwise engaging in the spoliation of evidence.
Chew on that one for a while. I have studying to do.
For more information on Robbins v. Lower Merion School District at America’s Right, click HERE.