By: Steve Watson
Thursday, Feb 18th, 2010
Federal lawsuit brought against district for covertly monitoring students and families in their homes
A school district in Philadelphia faces a class action lawsuit after it allegedly issued laptop computers to 1,800 students across two high schools and then used concealed cameras within the machines to spy on students and their parents without their knowledge or consent.
Lower Merion School District in the suburbs of Philadelphia faces charges of invasion of privacy, theft of private information, and unlawful interception for providing computers with webcams that were remotely and covertly turned on by administrators.
The suit was brought on behalf of all the students and their parents after it was revealed that the computers had been used to monitor students both at school and at home.
The case, Blake J. Robbins v. Lower Merion School District (PDF), was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, February 16, 2010.
According to the filing, the actions of the school district were exposed when one of the school’s vice principals disciplined Mr Robbins’ son for “improper behavior in his home,” and used a photo taken from the computer camera as evidence.
“Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through Ms. Matsko, (an assistant principal) that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and 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 complaint states.
“Additionally, by virtue of the fact that the webcam can be remotely activated at any time by the school district, the webcam will capture anything happening in the room in which the laptop computer is located, regardless of whether the student is sitting at the computer and using it.” it continues.
Nowhere in any “written documentation accompanying the laptop,” or in any “documentation appearing on any Web site or handed out to students or parents concerning the use of the laptop,” was any reference made “to the fact that the school district has the ability to remotely activate the embedded webcam at any time the school district wished to intercept images from that webcam of anyone or anything appearing in front of the camera,” the complaint also states.
The computers were provided via an initiative funded by state and federal grants to the students at Harriton High School in Rosemont, PA and Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, PA.
According to comments by the district’s Superintendent, Christopher McGinley, the initiative “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 McGinley failed to add was that it also provided the school with 24/7 access to the students and their families.
The plaintiffs also note in their complaint 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.”
The plaintiffs are seeking damages in respect of not only a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, but also a host of other federal and state privacy laws, including the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law.