A 15-year-old student and his parents have sued a suburban Philadelphia school district after discovering administrators covertly snapped pictures of him while at home on his school-owned laptop computer.
Blake Robbins and his parents have initiated a class action lawsuit (pdf) against the elite Lower Merion School District on behalf of the 2,300 high school students who received Apple MacBooks from the school district. The complaint alleges that the actions of administrators at Harriton High School violated the constitutional rights of Robbins, Pennsylvania state law, and several federal statutes, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
Robbins became aware of the surveillance in mid-November of last year when Harriton High School Assistant Vice Principal Lindy Matsko accused him of "improper behavior"—taking drugs—inside his bedroom. She warned Robbins that the school had the smoking gun against him: snapshots of him popping pills from the laptop computer's webcam that he borrowed from the school. Robbins says the pictures show him eating "Mike & Ike," his favorite candy.
Matsko this morning insisted she did not spy on Robbins, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer. "At no time have I ever monitored a student via a laptop webcam," she said, "nor have I ever authorized the monitoring of a student via a laptop webcam, either at school or in the home. And I never would."
According to the lawsuit, the school district never informed students or their parents that the laptop computers came equipped with a webcam that could be activated whenever administrators chose as part of an anti-theft program. The school district's network technician Mike Perbix explained how the LANrev software program worked in a 2008 Webcast, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer.
He talked in detail about the program's different features - including the remote tracking.
Once the feature is activated and a computer goes online, he said, "that computer will start sending back, at regular intervals . . . screen shots [pictures of what is on the computer's screen] and if you have a built-in iSight [the Apple camera], it will start sending in camera shots."
The security system also shows the computer's unique "address" and shows what Internet server it was logged into, which Perbix said can "help the police try to track down your stolen computer."
"Yes, we have used it, and yes, it has gleaned some results for us . . . especially when you're in a school environment and you're worrying about laptops getting up and missing," he said.
The webcams are only activated "in the case of a stolen, missing or lost laptop," Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young told Wired.com's Threat Level. Robbins computer, however, was none of the above. Rather it was a "loaner" that he borrowed from his school after his school laptop broke.
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the school district activated the webcam in Robbins' borrowed laptop because he never paid the mandatory $55 insurance fee for students wishing to take the laptops home with them. The school district sets aside loaner laptops for students who have not paid the fee but need to take the laptop home with them. Robbin's lawyer Mark S. Haltzman finds the school's argument convenient considering no one objected to his client's taking the loaner home or reporting it missing. "Now we hear about all these issues," he said.
The incident has since exploded into a national scandal with even the FBI and federal prosecutors getting involved. "The issues raised by these allegations are wide-ranging and involve the meeting of the new world of cyberspace with that of physical space," said Michael L. Levy, U.S. Attorney for Philadelphia. "Our focus will only be on whether anyone committed any crimes."
The incident has also eroded, if not destroyed, students' trust in the school district. Harriton High School sophomore Savannah Williams told CBS News "I've lost a lot of trust for my school district, and I'd like to be reassure that had I can get changed in my own bedroom with my laptop open without having to be worried that someone's watching me." More disturbing for the teenager, she says she brings her laptop computer into the bathroom with her to listen to music while she showers.
The district says it has activated the MacBook's webcam 42 times this school year. The school has since disabled the webcam security feature in all computers in reaction to the scandal.
♦ Screenshot of Lower Merion School District Homepage
♦ Photo by Dexter Panganiban/Flickr