Pa. School Faces FBI Probe, Lawsuit, for Using Webcams on Laptops to Watch Students at Home

Internet Security Expert Says District May Have Gone Too Far


Feb. 22, 2010—

The FBI and a Philadelphia-area prosecutor are looking into whether a school district broke the law when it remotely activated cameras on school-owned laptops and watched students in their homes.

The parents of 15-year-old Blake Robbins have filed a lawsuit against Harriton High School of the Lower Merion School District, alleging their son's privacy was violated.

The teenager said he found out about the remote surveillance when he was confronted by his assistant principal at the Rosemont school.

His suit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that school vice principal Lindy Matsko on Nov. 11 cited a laptop photo in telling Blake that the school believed he was engaging in improper behavior. He and his family have told reporters that an official mistook a piece of candy for a pill and thought he was selling drugs.

He denied the accusation and said the school took pictures of him via the laptop's camera without his knowledge.

"I think what they're doing was absolutely terrible and scary," Blake told "Good Morning America" today. "They are invading my house. They might as well be sitting in my room watching me without my knowing."

The district has admitted it made a mistake in not clearly explaining the technology available on the computers that it issues to every student as a way to enhance their educations.

Expert: School May Have Crossed the Line

While employers can regularly monitor employees' use of the Internet and e-mails, Internet security experts said, this case hinges on whether parents and students knew the school could monitor them.

Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy lawyer, said the school may have crossed the line.

"Schools have very limited authority under the Constitution to deal with things that are off-premises after hours and have nothing to do with the school itself, so in this case I think the school was out of bounds, literally," she said. "Schools are schools, police are police, and they never should meet."

The school district has hired an attorney and told ABC News it was convinced it would prevail in court. Opinion among teachers and students, though, is mixed.

Denise Welsh, the parent of a Harriton High student, said she believed the school had the right to monitor its property. "They are school computers," she said.

District Admits Insufficient Notification Was 'Unacceptable'

But Jared Matt, a junior at the high school, took a different view.

"I literally turn off the computer now because regardless of what's on there … it means the school's watching," he said.

District officials have acknowledged that they had remotely activated webcams on school-issued laptops 42 times in the past 14 months to find missing computers. They said they never did so to spy on students.

In the paperwork students signed when they received the computers, families were not told that the webcams could be activated in their homes without permission, said Doug Young, a district spokesman. "It's clear what was in place was insufficient, and that's unacceptable," he said.

The district has suspended the practice amid the lawsuit and the accompanying protests by students, the community and privacy advocates, Young said.

Risa Vetri Ferman, the Montgomery County district attorney, said Friday that she might also investigate.

Lower Merion, a Philadelphia suburb, issues Apple laptops to all 2,300 students at its two high schools.

Only two employees were authorized to activate the cameras, and only to locate missing laptops Young said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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