Pa. Schools Deactivate Webcams in Response to Lawsuit

PHILADELPHIA

After hearing that a high school student and his parents are suing the Lower Merion School District (LMSD) for allegedly spying on students at home using the cameras in school-provided laptops, the district has deactivated the cameras.

As part of a state- and federally-funded program “one-to-one” student-to-laptop initiative, as many as 1,800 students at the district’s two high schools had been given take-home laptops, reports computerworld.com.

The lawsuit, filed by Michael and Holly Robbins, states that in November 2009, district officials photographed – through a school-issued laptop webcam – Blake Robbins apparently taking pills at his home. Upon viewing the photo, school officials believed the student was possibly selling drugs.

However, in a Feb. 19 press conference, Blake said he was eating Mike & Ike candy when the photograph was taken.

The student’s parents said the assistant principal at Harriton confirmed that the district could remotely activate the webcam in students’ laptops.

The Robbins family maintains that the district did not inform them beforehand that the webcam could be remotely activated. They also claimed that there was no information on the district’s Web site or any of the documentation they received that mentioned the functionality.

The suit accuses the district of violating the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and other federal and state statutes.

If the lawsuit is granted class-action status, other students and families in the district would be able to join the action.

For its part, the district said that the laptops contained a security tracking feature to track lost, stolen and missing computers, reports USA Today. When activated, the tracking feature takes a still image of the person operating the equipment and the person’s screen.

In a statement released by the district, Dr. Christopher McGinley, superintendent for LMSD, said that the district never activated the security feature for any other purpose other than tracking down lost equipment.

The district released a second statement directed at parents that discussed the importance of student privacy.

Meanwhile, the FBI is currently investigating whether Harriton High School broke any federal wiretap laws when it remotely spied on its students, according to arstechnica.com. Additionally, the school has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury for records related to the security measures implemented on the take-home laptops that let officials activate the cameras to monitor the students using them.

Furthermore, a spokesman for the LMSD said the high school activated the webcams 42 times in the past year, but the cameras were never used to spy on students.

For additional information, click here.

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