School District Sued for Spying on Students via Webcam

Most U.S. school officials and teachers warn students about the dangers of sharing too much information online and teach young people ways to maintain relative privacy while connected to the Internet.  In Pennsylvania's Lower Merion School District, however, school officials allegedly took another approach: they surveilled students and their families by using the webcams built into laptops issued to students by their high schools.

The parents of Blake Robbins, a student in the district, have filed a class-action lawsuit against the LMSD, charging the district with

invasion of Plaintiffs' privacy, theft of Plaintiffs' private information and unlawful interception and access to acquired and exported data and other stored electronic communications in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, The Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, § 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act and Pennsylvania common law.

The Robbins family became aware of the school's surveillance of their son when Blake was reprimanded by Lindy Matsko, an assistant principal at Harriton High School, for engaging in improper behavior in his home. The lawsuit does not specify the particular behavior, but Matsko allegedly possessed a photo captured by the webcam on Blake's school-issued laptop.

In a statement published on the LMSD website after the lawsuit came to the notice of the media, district superintendent Christopher McGinley announced that the surveillance software has been deactivated this week, and he claimed that the surveillance software, which allows for remote activation of the webcams, was intended to be used only to locate laptops reported missing by students.  It does not appear Blake reported his laptop as missing, and the suit alleges that parents and students were not aware that there was even such a surveillance program installed on the 1,800 to 2,300 laptops.

A student in the school district contacted Gizmodo and suggested students were already suspicious they were being spied upon because, in the student's words,

Frequently, the green lights next to our [Early 2008 MacBook] iSight webcams will turn on. The school district claims that this is just a glitch. We are all doubting this now.

The response from the blogosphere to the news of alleged surveillance of students by school officials? Pretty much uniform horror.

But bloggers did address the charges from a number of different angles.  At The Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr took a closer look at the charges made by Robbins's parents, concluding that

The schools violated the Fourth Amendment rights of students when they actually turned the cameras on when the computers were at home. On the other hand, the schools did not violate the federal statutory surveillance laws.

The suit alleges that parents are worried that adults and children may have been viewed in various states of dress or undress.  In a discussion at Slashdot, Mistlefoot wrote, "If even a single 14 year was viewed naked in the privacy of their own home by a covert camera laws will have been broken." 

Also at Slashdot, shogarth writes that Robbins's parents are going about the suit the wrong way:

If it were my daughter's computer, I would not be talking about a class-action suit with a civil attorney. I would be sitting down at police HQ and the district attorney's office pursuing criminal charges against the individuals involved. They would need to face the felony charges that their behavior warranted. Once that was rolling, I would go after the individuals (not the district) for civil damages.

Why give a pass to the deep pockets? Simply because I don't want to have to look my neighbors in the face when a fractional point increase in their property taxes is required to pay a civil settlement that made me wealthy. I have no problems bankrupting the people who authorized and deployed the tech.

A blogger at Philebrity said the alleged spying in the LMSD raises a question of scope:

[H]ow many other well-to-do suburban school districts are engaged in such cyber-Orwellian practices and will they even get word considering this story’s under-reported nature in local mainstream media?

Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica wants more details about the case:

It's possible that things may have played out differently than the complaint alleges, though. If it was a MacBook, for example, Blake may have used the built-in Photo Booth software to take a picture of himself doing something questionable while at home, which may or may not be against the school's policy. If that photo got posted online or even synced back with the school's admins the next day, it's possible that Matsko was given access to the photo for disciplinary purposes. This, of course, doesn't account for the claim that Matsko confirmed with Michael Robbins that the school could (and had) spied on Blake remotely, but we haven't heard the school's side of the story yet.

Susana Polo is skeptical about the district's concerns about laptop theft, pointing out that barely 2 percent of the families in Lower Merion live below the poverty line.  Writing here at BlogHer, Jane Becker, who lives in the LMSD, pointed out her son's school did have a theft problem; she highlights, however, the ridiculousness of the school district having a paragraph-long policy on snowball-throwing, but not a reasonable policy on dealing with theft of student or school property.

Alex Pasternack shares an example of another school where administrators use surveillance software to spy on students.  Pasternack concludes:

Maybe, in some twisted way, principals are using their network of spy webcams to teach a little object lesson, albeit a depressing and unhelpful one: you might be being watched, and there’s very little you can do about it. Well, besides turning off that school laptop and just learning the old fashioned way. But wait—now you kinda need that computer to learn. Hmm. Forget about knowing how to spell “conundrum.” You can Google it, or just wait until your principal spell checks your chat window.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.  What's your reaction to the news that school administrators might have a way to view and record what goes on in your home?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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